After working for decades to reverse the economic despair and quality of life issues that continue to plague Appalachia, leaders in the region have decided to try a different approach.
“We fought the war on poverty, we fought the war on drugs for years, and we brought together groups of adult professionals to work this issue when in reality it’s our kids who are being most impacted,” says Dr. Dessie Bowling, associate director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC). “That’s the group that we want to focus on and they’re really coming up with great solutions.”
KVEC is spearheading an educational renaissance in southeastern Kentucky in hopes of tapping into a youthful source of creativity and energy. By challenging local students to tackle some of the region’s most pernicious problems, KVEC is giving young people practical, hands-on experiences that will prepare them for life and help them transform the communities they call home.
KET’s Connections explored KVEC’s innovative work with Bowling and Rose Shields, rural project manager for the Center for Excellence in Rural Health at the University of Kentucky.
Big Benefits from Tiny Projects
Based in Hazard, KVEC is a non-profit organization that serves more than 53,000 educators and children across 22 school districts in southeastern Kentucky. It’s one of eight such cooperatives in the commonwealth that provides professional development opportunities for teachers and fosters collaboration among school districts.
Drawing on federal education dollars and philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, KVEC offers mini-grants to teachers to support innovative classroom projects that will improve their students’ college and career readiness, and encourage them to tackle real-life problems facing their communities.
Under this Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, students are exploring ways to grow fish and vegetables using hydroponic systems. They’ve developed glow-in-the-dark horseshoes that will make nighttime riding safer, and a GPS tracker that can facilitate rescuing people stranded in the rugged Appalachian terrain.
These and other projects foster problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills in students. But on a more fundamental level, KVEC’s Dessie Bowling says they even help boost school attendance. She points to a project where students in three local districts design and build moveable tiny homes. The teens learn valuable construction skills that can help them get jobs after graduation.
“Sometimes when kids don’t see the relevance of the work they’re doing, they figure ‘why bother even going to school?’” Bowling says. “But through this project, they do see the relevance of it and they love the work.”
Their communities also benefit with a new source of safe, affordable housing for neighbors in need of shelter. Last year, students built three tiny houses, which they sold for between $16,000 and $19,000 each. Rose Shields of UK’s Center for Rural Health says those profits have funded the construction of eight new tiny houses this year, which will also be auctioned to benefit future construction projects.
Joining the Fight Against Addiction
Student projects also seek to address health problems endemic to the region. Shields says students focused on diabetes and obesity last year. This year they’re exploring the opioid crisis.
“We want people to know silence is not a solution any more when it comes opioid addiction, heroin addiction, or mental health issues,” says Shields.
Students are partnered with health care providers, law enforcement officials, and community mentors to research aspects of the drug crisis and how they might be able to help. One school group created a mobile app that tracks the location of used drug needles that people find in their communities. Intravenous drug use has led to an epidemic of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases, and Shields says the app can help protect children and adults as well as first responders from being accidentally infected by a dirty needle left in a public place.
Pikeville High School students took a different approach by creating what they call The Empty Chair project. That’s a website and app that provides information and resources for people with an addiction and for friends and family members who want to help a loved one with a substance abuse problem.
“The empty chair doesn’t just mean the possible death of a loved one or the death of a student,” Shields says. “It’s the empty chair that’s there at Thanksgiving, it’s the empty chair that’s there at Christmas, it’s the empty chair of that student who they missed that day at school.”
Students in Pikeville as well as in Paintsville and Magoffin County are also hosting school assemblies and fostering community discussions about needle exchanges, according to Shields. Along the way, she says students will keep careful track of data they collect during their projects so they can measure the impact of their harm reduction efforts.
A High-Tech Safety Net
Many times the problems associated with drug addiction and poverty that kids are trying to solve with their classroom projects can hit close to home. That’s why KVEC also wants to ensure that students themselves have access to support services that they might need but their schools can’t afford to provide.
“The budget cuts have just devastated a lot of our schools and so there’s not school counselors in place,” Bowling says.
To counter that trend, KVEC is providing a suite of digital tools called Ripple Effects to students in southeastern Kentucky who face issues of violence and trauma like substance abuse by a family member, homelessness, hunger, or thoughts of suicide.
“That’s a technology-based program that students can access 24/7,” Bowling says. “They’re able to log into that anywhere, anytime, and get information and learn more about a problem that they may be having. They are able to learn some coping skills, and then they’re also able to learn how to get help.”
Ripple Effects also includes modules for teachers to help them learn how to build relationships with vulnerable students. Shields and Bowling say sometimes the biggest thing a child needs is to make a positive connection with a trusted adult.
“When they’re affected by these traumatic events and they don’t know where to turn, they’ll just close off and they lose hope, and that’s devastating to them,” Bowling says.
“We always talk about how the youth are our future,” she says, “so that’s one of the things that we are focused on is giving them the tools and resources that are going to help them be successful.”