CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- All anyone had to say was, "West Virginia car!" and three heads would pop up in the family station wagon. Craning necks would search the highway. Daddy would blow the horn and we would be waving madly with both hands to strangers on the highway anywhere between Sissonville and Myrtle Beach. The response was always the same; passengers with the old blue and gold plate would wave back. We were all West Virginians, and we were happy to see each other.
The feeling of community has always been a part of being a mountaineer. People here know each other, and if we don't, we have mutual acquaintances. We care about each other. We pull for each other.
So how did McDowell County get left behind? The southern West Virginia location is the hot spot for everything that can go bad -- unemployment, poverty, poor schools, drug and alcohol abuse and so on. Why were the rest of us not paying attention to the needs of our brothers, sisters and our children?
Go ahead and blame the county's downfall on the economy, an energy plan that doesn't focus on coal, any local, federal or state administration for the last 50 years. Many do point the fingers at these targets.
But for kids in McDowell County, it doesn't really matter how the community fell to the bottom of the barrel. Point is -- it's there. School kids in McDowell County are just about the poorest in the country. The county has the fifth-worst poverty level per capita in the entire United States for school-aged kids -- 49 percent. Nearly half the kids don't live with at least one of their biological parents. More teenage girls are getting pregnant in McDowell County than anywhere else in West Virginia.
Are good things around the bend? Well, it depends how far down the road that bend is. Tying education to a successful community, about six of every 10 adults have a high school diploma. And folks there with a four-year college degree number about six in 100. The average ACT score for kids in McDowell County is 18.8 (out of 36).
The McDowell kids are just as smart as any other in West Virginia, but they lack opportunity. And it's hard for opportunity to find you -- or you to find it -- when there is no interstate highway nearby, no growing business, no higher education, no advanced medical care, no health facilities like the YMCA, or after school programs or a variety of youth sports. It's just you, your neighbors and a two-lane road.
Above all, the people of McDowell County aren't asking for pity. Reconnecting McDowell, a private and public attack on the problems, started a year ago. Companies are bringing high speed internet, working on getting more teachers, improving test scores, educating about health and drug addiction. They are helping the problems. But what about the people?
The big problems need that corporate boost the West Virginia American Federation Teachers is attracting. And high speed internet is great, but what if you don't have crayons, a toothbrush or warm mittens?
Winfield High School is rushing to help some elementary children by filling shoeboxes with school supplies and personal items. Poca and Nitro High Schools and other groups are signing on to help. But they need the help of everyone who can supply boxes or items. The goal is just over 1,000 boxes to help four elementary schools. The deadline is Dec. 10.
Year after year people in this state pack shoeboxes that go to help children on the other side of the world. What about the kids and families who live about two hours from your home? Your people. They are West Virginians, too. The people you may see at a high school game. People whose spirits also rise and fall with the Mountaineer and Herd defenses. People who know the people you know. The families you may pass on the highway on your way to Myrtle Beach.
Winfield, Poca and Nitro high schools have donation bins. Help by giving a few necessities or a box stuffed with things kids need -- 24-pack crayons, colored pencils, paper, safety scissors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, washcloths. Monetary donations can be made to Winfield High School Student Council, Memo: Shoeboxes.
Anyone with questions on how to be involved may call Winfield High School, 304-586-3279. Information is also available on Facebook at Reconnecting McDowell -- Christmas Shoeboxes.
Carney, of Scott Depot, is the mother of a student at Winfield High School.