08/26/2011 11:18 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2011

Kentucky Journey

"Why on earth would you go to rural Kentucky?" was the one question I heard time and again prior to my visit to the town of McRoberts. Ostensibly, I was joining a group of about 40 people -- two synagogue delegations led by the not-for-profit organization, The Good People Fund -- that was going to fix up homes and deliver food and other essentials to an impoverished former mining town deep in the Appalachians. But in reality, I didn't have a good answer for why I was going to leave the comfort and familiarity of New York City to fly via Charlotte, North Carolina, then into Charleston, West Virginia and then drive the final three hours deep into the Kentucky mountains. For all of my ambivalence, something compelled me to go.

I had done my homework before the trip and I steeled myself for what I was going to experience: a town of fewer than 900 inhabitants that was struggling to stay afloat since the mining interests left the area about 30 years ago. I learned about the high unemployment rate, the rampant drug use and the general sense of hopelessness that pervaded the community. But I also heard about the efforts of a few people -- outsiders and locals alike -- who banded together in an effort to improve the lot of the town. Could they really make a difference, or was the deck already stacked against them, I wondered.

My real reason for going was because I wanted to see for myself what happens when a town outlives its usefulness to the global economy; to get a better grasp of the true human cost of the decline of American industry. Is it possible that McRoberts is a place where people have become superfluous?

Driving in to Letcher County on highway 119, the first thing that struck me was the beauty of the countryside. Looking up, toward the sky, all I could see were rolling mountains covered with lush green trees in all directions. But down in the valleys, far from the heavens, there's only blight. Dilapidated houses. Broken down cars. A stray gas station. Family Dollar stores. The occasional fast food restaurant. This was it. Rural Kentucky. I was in it.

The first morning, after picking up all the necessary supplies, a group of us began painting the house of a woman who is raising her grandchildren by herself because their parents, her children, are too strung out on drugs to take care of the kids. She's not the only one in this situation. Later that day, the principal of the elementary school told me that many grandparents are raising their grandkids as a generation of parents is lost to drugs. The principal told me of the difficulties in getting some kids to come to school on time or to attend at all. They come from families who don't value education themselves, who don't read with their children, who often can't get up in the morning to make sure that their kids get to school on time. Some kids come to school hungry. Others leave school for the weekend without knowing when they're going to eat again.

The house we were painting looked like it should have been condemned rather than painted. Planks in the porch roof were hanging on for dear life and I truly feared that just scraping the old paint from them would cause them to crash down, bringing the entire house with it. Back porch screens were ripped to shreds and the back yard was strewn with old and rusted toys and furniture; remnants, perhaps, of a once better life.

Some of the volunteers were bewildered upon seeing a large, flat-screen TV inside one of the homes that was being renovated. The implication was clear: if they are so desperate, why do they have such an expensive television? Wouldn't that money be better spent on something more practical? Maybe so, but I can't begrudge anyone who lives in that remote location with so few amenities of modern life for wanting to own a nice TV set. We were lucky to be in McRoberts during the summer; I was told that life becomes harsher during the winter months. Roads become impossible to navigate when covered with ice and snow; a phenomenon that can cause the local schools to close down for days at a time. The kids lose between 20-30 school days a year due to the extreme weather conditions. If a nice TV helps get people through these rough patches, so be it, I concluded.

The woman cried when she saw the (nearly) completed paint job and said, "But there's so much more to do." She's right. A new paint job will not repair the years of neglect from which her home suffers. But it's a start. Maybe when she sees her house now, the woman will smile and be reminded that things can be better. Still, hoping that "good people" will come to the rescue isn't a long term or sustainable solution for her problems or those of the town. The best thing that they can hope for is that the people who run the schools can reach a few of the students and show them that their real salvation is through education.

Drug addiction. Unemployment. A culture that doesn't emphasize learning and achievement. What hope does a young person growing up there have? If they are lucky, they'll have parents who want them to get an education. If they are lucky they'll have a principal who makes sure that the elementary school has enough books for them to read despite the meager budget that is allocated by the state. If they are lucky, they'll stay away from the drugs that continue to ravage generation after generation of young people.

Some wait for a miracle. The mines will reopen. Factories will spring up. Jobs will be more readily available and there will be a future. But those are just dreams. There's not much to save the town or its people except for the people themselves. And sadly, many of them aren't the least bit equipped, able or interested in doing that.

As I drove out of McRoberts after a few days, the answer of what will happen to this town was no clearer to me than it was before I arrived. But there was a profound difference; the people who lived there, so easily derided as a bunch of "dumb hillbillies," became human to me. Just like the rest of us, they wake up every morning and struggle to deal with what life hands them. Their circumstances are more dire than most, perhaps, but their stories deserve to be heard.