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What I Learned about Poverty in Eastern Kentucky and How it can be Reduced

The idea of the began with Reverend Ralph W. Beiting, a Roman Catholic priest born and raised in northern Kentucky. He was the oldest of eleven and grew up during the Great Depression, implying that he was no stranger to financial need. At one point during his priesthood, he embarked on several preaching trips alongside his colleagues and discovered that he wanted to help the people of Appalachia. On October 7, 1950, he found himself the pastor of a large portion of Eastern Kentucky–supposedly the size of Rhode Island–where there were no Catholic churches nor rectories to tend to. Such services were non-existent, but there, the Reverend saw the perfect opportunity to begin his ministry, which would one day become known as the CAP.

“Perhaps the safest way to promote proper family planning would be to create awareness amongst parents on appropriate family planning methods consistent with the Catholic Church,” writes Barlow who interned with the Christian Appalachian Project.

On the eve of his ministry, he made numerous trips to northern Kentucky and back to collect food, clothing, household goods, and other basic amenities from his family and friends. Then in 1957, he and his associate pastor assembled a small stipend to buy a plot of land on Herrington Lake in Garrard County to make a summer camp for small boys. It was named Cliffview Lodge. The summer camp was racially integrated, even though it was built during a time when racial segregation was expected. Above all, it tended to boys from poor families living in the counties to which Reverend Beiting ministered. The camp ministry was successful and met the recreational and spiritual needs of the community he was serving – as did many other subdivisions of CAP.

I learned that during the 1950’s through the early 80’s, Camp Shawnee, where I interned, was a Boy Scout camp, purchased by CAP in 1987. Major renovations have taken place, and it has since continued to fulfill the dreams set forth by Reverend Beiting.

Like Cliffview Lodge, the original camp CAP facility, Camp Shawnee serves seven local communities–each with minor demographic differences. I was provided a breakdown of the local area information. The following demographic information characterizes the two communities with the highest and lowest median household income:

Johnson County

Population: 23,356

Median Household Income: $24,911

Racial Diversity: 98.6% White; 1.4% Other

Poverty: 26.6%

“Moist” County

Martin County

Population: 12,929

Median Household income: $18,279

Racial Diversity: 94% White; 6% Other

Poverty: 37%

Dry County

Children between the ages of five and fourteen are eligible to attend camp. They can attend

from one to six weeks, depending on what their families can afford. At a charge of $20 per child, who wouldn’t send their child to camp? For many children who attended camp in the past, it was the most anticipated event of the summer. Homesickness was definitely a recurring issue the staff faced each week. With the help of counselors, some children would work through the homesickness. Others were sent home. As volunteers at Camp Shawnee, our goal was to give the children the experience of a lifetime. Whether or not these children were “impoverished,” we sought to ensure that camp could be their home away from home and, more importantly, a place where they felt that they could “just be kids.”

“One of their roles is to educate parents on cultivating the education of their children so that the children have more opportunity to reach their full potential,” writes Barlow who interned in 2016 in Eastern Kentucky.

Needless to say, most of the children we accommodated lived below the poverty line and had tough housing situations. As the photographer, one of my jobs was to identify and photograph every child that showed up in camp. This gave me the opportunity to interact with many of the parents. These interactions seemed to make evident which children came from impoverished families. Sometimes after hearing their stories, my heart was heavy because I knew that there was little I could do to relieve their poverty. Some children would show up with just the clothes on their back; but over the years Camp Shawnee has received a bounteous supply of donated clothing and was able to provide these children with new wardrobes. One child, who had attended the camp in the past, proceeded to tell me how good the food at camp was. It was cute, but it seemed that she was telling me that she did not normally eat meals like those at the camp. There was nothing I could do, but I hoped that these meals would satisfy her as much as they did in the past. I can attest that the meals at camp were more than enough and quite delectable, because we had a cook who loved her job almost as much as she loved the children.

When I was not at Camp Shawnee, I explored parts of the Eastern Kentucky community. I learned that much of the poverty in Eastern Kentucky has been exacerbated by the crash of the coal industries. Families have either chosen to remain in Eastern Kentucky or lack the education and means to foresee opportunities elsewhere. It is likely that this poverty has a generational effect on Kentucky citizens, which will continue until they receive improved family planning. I have yet to experience a more proactive non-profit organization than CAP.  Based on my observations, CAP does an incredible job tending to the Eastern Kentucky community.  Although I have limited knowledge of CAP programs, it does a lot, even though there is more that can be done.

As a Christian foundation, CAP certainly has a role in building up the morale of the communities it serves. In addition to summer camp, CAP provides meals and fellowship during the holiday seasons. CAP also provides basic household necessities and clothing to Appalachian families year round. Unfortunately, it seems that basic household necessities are not enough to relieve these families’ poverty. I think the key to helping ease poverty is to help with family planning. This starts with education of individuals, parents, and children.

CAP places a lot of emphasis on building up the youth in Appalachia. It hires professional counselors to support families and individuals suffering from emotional instability from severe impoverishment. One of their roles is to educate parents on cultivating the education of their children so that the children have more opportunity to reach their full potential.  This counseling and extra help with food during holidays leads me to believe that CAP does what it can and should to support and advocate for the impoverished community. My observations suggest that CAP views emotional and spiritual support as the most vital type of health care it can provide. CAP nurtures children during their formative years so that they can make the most of their education and future endeavors.  It provides emotional support for adults and parents to help them get their life back on track. While I consider this to be an attempt at proper family planning, there are other measures CAP can take to improve its role in healthcare.

Some might consider Planned Parenthood a viable option for promoting better family planning and healthcare in Eastern Kentucky. However, since CAP was founded on Catholic principles, such advocacy would contradict CAP’s values. Perhaps the safest way to promote proper family planning would be to create awareness amongst parents on appropriate family planning methods consistent with the Catholic Church.

Additionally, it seems that the Appalachia region lacks general healthcare clinics. Because CAP is limited in its ability to influence much less change Kentucky healthcare polices, it might consider petitioning for the building more healthcare clinics. Likewise, CAP is almost all volunteer based, it might consider seeking out professionals who could intermittently donate time to visit and educate families and individuals on proper health care.

CAP definitely seeks to promote the Appalachian community. My experience at Camp Shawnee was incredible and helped me better understand the dynamic of poverty in the United States. While CAP could take an advocacy role or do more to promote healthcare and education for impoverished families within Appalachia, it keeps its focus on more urgent and less controversial needs. Unfortunately, to survive in today’s world, basic amenities like food and clothing are not enough. Basic necessities have become increasingly complex and now include healthcare, education, and counselling.  CAPs mission continues Reverend Beiting’s initial vision.  That is crucial.  CAP might do more to promote healthcare and education for the poor if it had an influx of funds, but it should keep the focus of the original mission and avoid the controversy and conflict with its Catholic values public policy advocacy would entail.  I believe that there will always be need for improvement, but I believe that CAP is right to what it can to provide a helping hand and a smile every so often.


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