Spring Break Turns into Service, A Look Back from Team Appalachia
A total of 11 St. John Fisher College students, faculty, and staff traded in their beach towels for an alternative spring break this year, literally. The group partnered with Alternative Spring Breaks, an organization that coordinates service-learning immersion trips for college students, and made the trek to Harlan, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountain region.
Students Tricia Blanchard, Sarah Hryzak, Karlee Platts, Mark Prunella-Miller, Dan Przybylski, Aaron Spacher, Tierney Sullivan, and Chloe Warner were joined by Sally Vaughan, Director of Community Service, and faculty members Scott Bryson and Dr. Greg Cunningham for the trip.
Przybylski said when the group first heard of Appalachia, they imagined a broken down town with people that may resemble the hit TV show, “Moonshiners.” The group received some much-needed education in the weeks leading up to the trip, watching documentaries to help them prepare for what they would see. They quickly learned that they were about to spend a week in a poverty-stricken mountain wasteland nestled deep in eastern Kentucky.
Harlan, Kentucky sits on the southeast ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, not too far from the Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia borders. Przybylski said the residents’ chief source of income is coal mining ? almost everyone who lives there either works or has someone in the family who works in the mines.
In the Appalachian region, there are two types of mining that are prevalent. The first is the traditional method of digging a tunnel deep into the side of the mountain. The other method is called mountaintop removal, which is when high amounts of explosives are used to remove layers of rock and soil on top of the mountain to reach and remove coal beneath. This method has become popular but also controversial.
“Through the mountaintop removal method, the picturesque mountain landscape of the Appalachians is being leveled off and transformed into barren land where nothing grows,” said Przybylski.
The group learned that another problem with this mining method is that deposits of coal slurry (the byproduct of mining) are polluting the drinking water and filling the air with dust, making some regions of the mountains simply uninhabitable.
During their time there, the group met residents, all of whom had different opinions on coal mining and the general quality of life for the region. They met Mike, a 30-year veteran coal miner, who wanted the group to leave remembering that the people in Appalachia are “not stupid and actually make a contribution to society.” They quickly learned that he was right after spending time in the coal mine and taking into consideration all the technical aspects to the field.
They also met two local artists named Jeff and Sharmaine, who lived at the base of a mountain that was using the mountaintop removal method. The two are experiencing trouble breathing and are also under heavy fire from the surrounding town because of their anti-coal views. And then they met Sheralin, a female coal miner who spoke about diversity in the mining workplace and adapting to being both a woman and an African-American working in a male-dominated career. She is suffering from Black Lung, a common disease that coal miners develop from breathing in coal dust for years. She told the group that she will support the miners and their families for as long as they work in the mines.
And while Kentucky may feel far away, Przybylski and the other students came home with a better sense of how the work done in the Appalachia region affects us all – even right here at Fisher.
“The coal that is being mined creates light and heat energy for us; coal mining is also contaminating some of our water sources, which is a staggering fact,” said Przybylski.
While they were there, the group replanted 2,700 trees on a mine site to restore the beauty that was once there, but they left feeling compelled to do more.
“We need to make simple changes to conserve our natural resources,” said Przybylski. “Shut off lights that are not being used, lower the thermostat when no one is home, and don’t waste water. Some areas of West Virginia are without clean drinking water. West Virginia borders Pennsylvania, which borders New York – it all hits close to home,” added Przybylski.
Over the course of their seven-day trip, the group also got to see the coal mines up close and saw the work that went into mining. In addition, they traveled around the region weatherizing low-income homes, painted a community center, and replanted tree on several more sites, working with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative.
Team Appalachia is already talking about a similar trip for Spring Break in 2014. The group has organized an information session for those who may want to learn more on Tuesday, April 9, at 12:30 p.m. in Basil 135.