Mind, Body, Spirit Connections

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Chapter in Jennifer's Life~


"We are all on a voyage – the river is waiting to lift us free, if only we let go – not afraid of being tumbled and smashed against the rocks by the current. Trust the river of life. Release yourself." (Bachman journal, Appalachia, 1981)

I landed in Appalachia in my Junior year of college. Too broke to travel abroad, I drove my mother’s 1964 green Valiant to Barbourville Kentucky.

The first question I was confronted with when I arrived: What is poverty?

“Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt and illness stained mattress. The sheets have long since been used for diapers. Poverty is living in a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of urine, sour milk and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of long-cooked onions. Onions are cheap. If you have smelled this smell you did not know how it came. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the mattresses where years of “accidents” have happened. It is the smell of the milk which has gone sour because the refrigerator long has not worked, and it costs money to get it fixed. It is the smell of rotting garbage. I could bury it, but where is the shovel? Shovels cost money.

Poverty is an acid that drips on pride until all pride is worn away. Poverty is a chisel that chips on honor until honor is worn away.” (Excerpts from a paper delivered by Jo Parker, 1965)

I scoffed when I read her paper feeling that this woman was exaggerating and that even if this were true in the 1960’s, surely the same conditions did not exist in the 1980's. But, I had only just arrived in Appalachia and I had not met the Clevenger’s.

The following is my accounting of my visits to the Clevenger's taken from my journal in 1981.

The Clevenger’s lived in a hollow (pronounced holler) in Corbin, Kentucky. My supervisor gave me the case as a joke. I was sent to do a 6 month follow-up. I talked to myself nervously while traveling the back dirt roads. I was all of nineteen and this was my first case alone. Naïve, nervous and completely unprepared for the likes of the Clevenger’s.

I remember my knees trembling as I climbed up the wooden steps and knocked. The door opened and I entered the dark, dank, smelly room. I quickly explained who I was and the reason I was there. Chuck was tall, over six feet, and dressed in overalls, dirty and he smelled stale. Not sure what I saw first in the dimly lit living room, but the slithering of hundreds of objects down the wall caught my eye and my skin began to burn and itch. The smell hit me instantly with the recognition of what I was seeing – hundreds of cockroaches. Surreal, it looked like rain. Turning to my left, I saw a woman sitting in a chair dumbly staring at a black and white TV. The TV sat on an old fifties rusted, metal stand. No picture, only white snow and sound. His wife, Dorothy, never acknowledged me and never spoke. She just stared at the screen.

Chuck hollered for his children to come in and meet me. A boy and a girl maybe seven and five years of age ran into the room. They were shabbily dressed, filthy and malnourished. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed along the opposite wall a crib and a child standing in the crib. Her head was too large for her body, and blue veins crisscrossed her skull. My mind was screaming, but I could not understand my own alarm.

And Chuck just talked and talked and talked; angry, and tired of his neighbors complaining, he vented his frustrations. They had called the Bureau of Social Services on him and he was resentful. He received a 1,000 check each month in disability, much more than the BSS workers make in a month. Chuck claimed that they spent over $700 in food. It made no sense as the cupboards were bare. The kids ate saltines off the floor. I opened the refrigerator only to find more filth and an empty, cracked plate. The kitchen sickened me, and I fought the urge to vomit. Pots and pans, filled with crud and mold were strewn across the counters. The sink was filled with black water. The place was filthy beyond imagination and they used an outhouse, even though the house had a bathroom – unused.

I left promising Chuck I would return next week. As soon as I got back to the office, I called the Health Department making appointments for all three children. The following week I picked Charles, Dorothy and the children up and brought them to the Health Department. Charles started up again about people harassing him and how dumped on he’d been his whole life. His daughter's feet were so cold that morning that her boot wouldn’t go on – Chuck struggled to get her foot into the boot.

The visit to the Health Department was tragic. Peggy, the baby, was 18 months old, but measured only 7 months old on the growth chart. Cora had bruises all over her buttocks and worms. Chuck had also inadvertently broken her leg trying to pull her boot on that morning. One of the nurses became irate and began to scream at Chuck. He became angry and started yelling. And there I was, trying to mediate. I was so frustrated and knew I was way over my head.

Long story short, my supervisor finally realized how serious a case this had become and intervened. Neighbors had been stealing their electricity which was why the electric bill was so high, and the local grocer was charging 50 cents on the dollar for food charged by Chuck. When the BSS workers refused to clean the house, a church finally did. They discovered a stack of journals under the TV stand. Dorothy had been writing down, word for word, the dialogue from the Soaps she was listening to. She was enrolled in school and eventually began to speak again.

I have never again witnessed poverty like I did in Appalachia. I imagine if I were to venture back into the hollows of North Corbin, I would still discover the same conditions that I did in the 1980's.

Wait, I'll look it up~

OMG, the rate of children living below the poverty line in North Corbin, Kentucky is 68.4%. I am sickened. So much for ending poverty!

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