Community Service, Not Philanthropy

Berea College acknowledges a debt to Appalachia by developing regional leaders.
By Chad Berry

Community is important to many institutions of higher learning, but it is very difficult to imagine Berea College disconnected from its primary community—the Appalachian region. Since its mid-nineteenth-century beginning as a radical experiment in interracial education and coeducation centered in community, the college has been dedicated to serving the Appalachian region, in the words of one of its “great commitments,” “primarily through education but also by other appropriate means” by offering all admitted students four-year fulltuition scholarships.

The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center—founded in 1970 as the first center of its kind at an institution of higher learning—is charged primarily with helping to realize Berea’s commitment to Appalachia. Our work at the center has two dimensions. One is “in-reach”—that is, teaching students about the assets and challenges of the region. Berea’s admissions policy requires that roughly half of its students come from Appalachia, but many arrive without a strong regional identity; their sense of identity is often much more localized (for example, they may think of themselves as coming from Mud Creek or Clay County rather than from Appalachia). Approximately 30 percent come from non-Appalachian Kentucky, and another 20 percent are from beyond Kentucky and Appalachia; the latter group includes many international students from Africa and Asia, so we help these students see potential connections between Appalachia and their home communities. Our other important work involves outreach to people and communities in the mountains.


Sometimes, our work blends both inreach and outreach. One such example is the center’s Entrepreneurship for the Public Good (EPG) program, an intensive two-summer program in which twenty selected students learn entrepreneurial leadership within an Appalachian context. The first summer features an eight-week institute, the equivalent of two courses. Last year, program codirectors Peter Hackbert and Daniel Huck concentrated on the community of Hyden, Kentucky, the seat of economically distressed Leslie County. There, the students worked with citizens and community leaders on ideas to enhance the local economy. They ultimately helped advance plans for promoting adventure tourism, using biodiesel fuel in the county’s school buses, teaching elementary students nutritional education and recreation, teaching older students financial literacy in afterschool programs, and creating a Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, which sells donated construction items. This summer, a new corps of EPG fellows worked in nearby Knott County, Kentucky, helping communities in four main areas: adventure tourism; artisanship; sustainability, alternative energy, and ecology; and sports and fitness.

The second half of the EPG program comes the following summer, when students design and complete a ten-week internship that builds on the entrepreneurial leadership acquired during the previous summer institute. According to Huck, field experiences in summer 2009 included one student’s launch of a biodiesel company serving the bus fuel needs of two school systems in southeastern Kentucky and another student’s creation of communication and problem-solving workshops for resettled families served by an international refugee relief agency. Some students even returned to Hyden to continue their work. “I decided several years ago to dedicate my future career toward sustainable economic development in central Appalachia,” said Nathan Hall, a student from Floyd County, Kentucky, “and I have been able to use my experience as a Berea College student to further that goal through participation in the EPG program. Our time in Hyden gave me a chance to explore opportunities that will likely serve me well in the future.”

Learning through Service

Another example of education that combines in-reach with outreach is the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center’s work with Berea’s Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS). A focus on Appalachia is woven throughout service learning at Berea and in the many student-led service programs administered by CELTS. A host of community partners are in the orbit of CELTS: Save the Children, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, Big Creek People in Action, Clearfork Community Institute, and the Berea Community Food Bank. “A basic premise of service learning at Berea,” according to CELTS associate director Ashley Cochrane, is that “each person involved is a teacher and a learner. As we continue to partner with Appalachian communities and community organizations, it is important to recognize that learning and service go in both directions.” Berea citizen Jerry Workman, the volunteer coordinator of Berea Food Bank, agrees: “I am very fortunate to be working with CELTS, a great resource on the cutting edge of service learning, which addresses the needs of our students and community.” Debra Bulluck, who graduated in May 2009 and was active in CELTS, says that service not only benefits the community but also the volunteer. “Some people start to serve in a community because they are passionate about an issue,” she explained, “but . . . sometimes service is what can lead you to your passions.”

Last year, my Appalachian Culture class worked with the people of War, West Virginia, in McDowell County through Big Creek People in Action. Most of the students in the class were from Appalachia, but spending sustained time in the community was still valuable. Although McDowell County has one of the country’s highest rates of childhood poverty, students learned that its local citizens also had important assets, such as the strength of the bonds of community. Brittany Buchanan, a firstyear student from Knox County, Kentucky, had what seemed to be a common realization as a result of the course’s community engagement: “Service learning allowed me to take a deeper look at communities in Appalachia. Even though I grew up there, I never realized before how much Appalachia means to me and how I’ve really found my identity as an Appalachian through the experiences I had in War. Before,” she concluded, “I had always been told to leave home and ‘make something of myself.’ Now, I know that I don’t have to leave home, that it’s part of me, and that I want to serve the community that has shaped who I am.” Samantha Cole, a junior Appalachian studies major, hails from Lee County, Kentucky, and is determined to return home upon graduation to make a difference. “Working in the community in and around Berea has helped me to rediscover the many things I have to be proud of about my home,” she says. “Working with artists, musicians, students, and others has opened my eyes to a cultural wealth in the Appalachian region that often goes overlooked and unappreciated.”


Berea has important outreach initiatives, too. The college administers the Berea College Appalachian Fund, established by Herbert and Ruth Faber in 1950 and turned over to the college in 1987 by Stuart and Shirley Faber. Over almost six decades, more than $15 million has been spent to support invaluable work throughout central Appalachia in hospitals, clinics, settlement schools, and missions and at many other nonprofit organizations. Typical is the support long given to the Lend-A-Hand Center, a facility operated by Irma Gall and Peggy Kemner in tiny Walker, Kentucky. Kemner came to nearby Stinking Creek in 1958 after graduating from the nursing program at Johns Hopkins University; she went on to deliver so many babies in the community (more than five hundred and still counting) that locals say, “The stork doesn’t bring babies; Peggy does in her brown bag.” Gall taught in a one-room school for many years. With the Appalachian Fund’s continued assistance, Lend-A-Hand is still going strong more than fifty years later.

Much of the center’s outreach work is done by the Brushy Fork Institute. Now in its third decade, Brushy Fork has worked to develop strong leadership in Appalachian communities throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio. The institute offers leadership training, organizational development workshops, and technical assistance to communities. One of Brushy Fork’s most important new areas of service is the Annual Institute, begun in 2005. The Annual Institute serves as a regional model for an open, self-sustaining training venue designed to build the capacity of non profits and community-based organizations in central Appalachia. “Brushy Fork deepened my resolve [to] find kindred spirits,” said Michael Tierney, director of a West Virginia nonprofit. “Being with people who are facing the same issues gives you a breath of fresh air. . . . The coal fields and the inner city should compare notes more.” The Annual Institute also gives participants a forum to share their plans and successes. One 2008 participant said, “When we get home, we’re going to grow Harlan County [Kentucky] one citizen at a time.” Her community team had designed a T-shirt that displayed the slogan, “It’s all about me. I can make a difference.”

Brushy Fork continues its work through the Community Transformation Program, which was piloted in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in 2006. This program’s ambitious title expresses the belief that the citizens of Appalachian communities have the wisdom, the vision, and the commitment to guide the development of their own communities and to achieve dramatic results. Recently, Brushy Fork formed a new partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Kentucky Department for Local Government that will allow it to administer nearly $300,000 in grants for Kentucky’s economically distressed Appalachian counties. The grants will provide small investments in short-term projects that build community capacity to mobilize local resources, enhance leadership, and strengthen community networks and institutions. The first cycle of grants has funded important projects in nine different Appalachian counties in Kentucky. The expanded Community Transformation Program now includes teams from Kentucky and West Virginia. These teams attend the Annual Institute, where participants begin to create plans for community development efforts. Meanwhile, Brushy Fork explores ways to provide technical assistance and leverage the resources that will carry forward the efforts that come from within these communities.

“Appalachia and beyond” is an oftheard phrase at Berea. Appalachia in many ways serves as the college’s integrative context for a host of curricular and co-curricular work. One result of this commitment is recognition: Berea College is one of 119 colleges and universities selected for the prestigious 2008 Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. But there are many other results that make for a more just, equitable, and sustainable Appalachia.Harold Burdette, who graduated in May with a major in Appalachian studies, epitomizes this spirit of community engagement: “Service to my community is not just a hobby or something I do, it is a duty to me, one that I take great pride in and that I take to heart,” he said. “As long as I am living I am sure I will be serving others in my community. I honestly believe it is my responsibility to serve.”

Chad Berry is Goode Professor of Appalachian Studies, associate professor of history, and director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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