What It’s Really Like To Grow Up In Appalachia

Flickr / Justin Meissen
Flickr / Justin Meissen

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia is a 205,000 square mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Many of you may have heard of my home region through comedians taking our culture and minimizing it into a joke, or through television shows that depict the people of Appalachia as uneducated, racist, and as if incest is as common as the blue sky. As someone who was born here, grew up here, and is proud to be Appalachian, I am pleased to offer insight into what it is really like to be from the mountains.

Growing up in Appalachia is something that is incredibly difficult to explain if you have never experienced it. As a product of Eastern Kentucky, I have been fortunate enough to view things in a unique way that many people will never have the opportunity to do. Culturally speaking, Appalachia is extremely rich. As a community that is poor — monetarily speaking — we have learned to find the wealth in our land and our surroundings. Appalachian culture is marked by strong, pragmatic Christian views, close relationships with family members, and far too often by the belief that those who grow up in the area have backwards beliefs and mentalities. For me, I believe that it has allowed me to appreciate the positive and to grow beyond the negative by being exposed to all different types of individuals throughout my short life. I will take the lessons that I have learned growing up in the mountains through my life and will use them to help educate others on our culture and to promote tolerance in our community for cultures different from our own.

I grew up in Salyersville, Kentucky, a very small town. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Salyersville had a population of 1,883. We have a total of three red lights, four dollar stores, and a whole lot of small town pride. It is not uncommon for families to spend afternoons together on the front porch or working together in the garden. It would not be unusual to find many family members at a local church on a Sunday morning either. Family, faith, and food are three major components of life in Appalachia no matter your age. I was raised in a Christian family; in fact, my grandfather is 81-years-old and still serves as an Assistant Pastor of a local church. My family lives on the same street, with the exception of my aunt who lives “across the hill” or in other words, about two miles away, and my cousin who lives “down in Jellico” or in other words, about 12 miles away.

While we certainly have our own “slang,” it is important to note that we also have the ability to communicate effectively. Two of the most common misconceptions I’ve heard from people are that we are uneducated and lazy. I beg to differ! Personally, I am currently working on my masters degree and have high hopes of enrolling in a PhD program in the future. I am a member of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society, served as Miss Kentucky United States 2013, and work everyday to bring awareness to bullying. My father has his doctorate in Occupational Therapy and my mother is a nurse. If you want to talk hardworking, my parents leave the house every morning no later than 6:00 AM and usually do not return home from work before 8:00 PM. My grandfather has worked everyday as a carpenter since he was 14-years-old. This year, he paid his last dues to the carpenters local and received a gold plaque to commemorate his life long membership. My entire family works hard, in all different fields, but with the same amount of dedication and drive. They are not the only Appalachians with this type of work ethic and pride. As Appalachians, we want nothing more than to live lives that we can be proud of and to work hard in order to do so. While not everyone has a college degree, they are not afraid to work hard. They have so much pride in the work they do, it it hurts me when people who have no idea about our culture try to take that away.

I would also like to address another offensive stereotype that I have encountered far too many times: That we all are proponents for incest. I will never forget the first time that someone who was ignorant about our culture asked if I “dated my cousins.” I hate to even dignify this by mentioning it, but I find it a worthwhile thing to address. Incest is a problem everywhere. I am not denying that it has happened in our region, but I refuse to continue to allow sheer ignorance to place this stereotype on our region alone.

I find it very interesting that many people feel compelled to feel sorry for those of us who have grown up in the mountains, when in all reality some very prolific and intelligent people have emerged from this area and continue to do so. I believe that growing up in a working-class family has instilled a sense of pride in hard work that I may have never received had I grown up in a more privileged environment. If given the opportunity to choose to grow up somewhere different, I would never change growing up in Appalachia.

I am proud to be from Appalachia and I am hopeful that people will educate themselves on our culture instead of continuing to believe and spread hurtful and offensive stereotypes. In fact, I encourage you to visit this region, experience the beauty of the mountains and find out what it is really like firsthand. In every area on Earth there are downsides and individuals who contribute to the less than pleasing stereotypes, but do not judge an entire population based on a few. I can assure you that we will welcome you with open arms.

Come home to Appalachia! TC mark

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