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McDowell residents tell stories of struggles, successes

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- McDowell County residents brought their stories to Charleston Wednesday evening, to highlight one coalfield community's struggles and successes in dealing with economic decline, population loss and a host of other challenges.

Participants in the interactive documentary "Hollow" appeared to close out a day-long forum aimed at encouraging more discussion and action toward diversifying West Virginia's economy in the wake of coal's continuing decline.

Filmmaker and West Virginia native Elaine McMillion showed a collection of the project's 30 short films.

Several residents joined her for a discussion with about 200 people who attended the forum, called "A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State," which was sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Community Development Hub.

Unlike much of the media coverage of McDowell County and similar rural communities facing challenges, "Hollow" lets the residents themselves tell the story of their homeplace. The result is a much broader and deeper profile of a community.

Forum organizer Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that "Hollow" fit in perfectly with the event, which partly aimed at trying to encourage allowing coalfield communities a greater say in their own future economic development.

One "Hollow" segment featured McDowell resident Alan Johnston, who has spent several years trying to document the area and its history through his photographs.

"I don't believe it will ever be like it was when I was a kid," Johnston says in the segment. "That doesn't make me love this place any less. It's my home. I love these mountains."

Another segment features Shawn Penwarden, a native who moved back to McDowell County and has spurred to work to improve the area by the birth of his baby daughter, Jessica.

McMillion explained that Penwarden was among the residents who shot film for the project. She said much of his work focused on scenes of abandoned houses or raw sewage flowing into streams -- the sorts of things he wants to help the county clean up -- but that the last clip he sent her was a scene of him playing with Jessica.

"That last piece he shot was this really light-hearted piece of his baby, and that really summed up why he shot the other pieces," McMillion said.

Two young residents who joined McMillion for the Charleston event said that one problem the county faced was a history of young people either being encouraged to leave or at least not being told that staying in McDowell was even an option for them.

"There had been a tradition that whenever people reached a certain age they just left, because there wee no opportunities," said one of the residents, Patrick Corcoran, who works as assistant to the director of the local library. "That may be shifting. I feel like there is a shift that's occurring."

The other resident, Erica Lucas, came back to Welch to be with family, but is working three jobs and hoping to graduate from Bluefield State College. "College isn't even thought of at first," Lucas said, adding that she hopes that is also changing.

In another segment McMillion showed Wednesday evening, local firefighter Ron Serino describes his frequent calls responding to residents who overdose on drugs, and his pride in volunteering to help his neighbors.

"We get overdoses on a regular basis," Serino says. "We seem to have easy access to pain medication. It's easy for folks to get them, so it's easy for folks to abuse them."

In another, local environmental activist Rob Goodwin is shown trying to help a McDowell County couple that is concerned about impacts from a mining operation near their home. Goodwin, who attended the event, said the residents were like many in that they were "dissatisfied with the government" response to their concerns.

Residents Bob and Linda McKinney attended Wednesday's meeting. Their segment of "Hollow" explains their work running a local food pantry, one of the efforts residents are making to try to help each other deal with the county's hard times. Since filming ended, the facility has expanded and is experimenting with a community garden.

McKinney said she she's more and more households with large numbers of residents, often made up of men and women who are raising their grandchildren or even their great-grandchildren.

"When they come to the food bank, they don't want food. They want toilet paper," she said. "But they're smart and they learn. They can go to the dollar store and get coffee filters, and that's what they use."

Another segment featured 90-year-old educator Ellis Ray Williams, who compared the boom days of McDowell County's coal industry to depressed economy today.

"We just don't have the people anymore, and to get the people back, we're going to need some different industries to employ the people," Williams said.

"We didn't lose the coal, we lost the method of getting the coal out," Williams says, as the segment shows scenes of a large-scale surface mine. "We got machines.

"When mining started, we mined all the coal to fight the wars and all that," he said. "We should have diversified. We deserve that in McDowell County. We paid our dues."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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