Giving Appalachians a Sense of What’s Possible

Apr 27, 2018

Several federally funded job-training programs have emerged in recent years designed to help revitalize coal country. In 2017 alone, the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership focused on economic development since the mid-1960s, approved more than $150 million in projects for the region. But how successful are these programs, and what are the challenges?

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, producer Roxy Todd brings us the story of a pair of apprentices in one such job-training program called Refresh Appalachia.

 

Crystal Snyder, 38, and Colt Brogan, 21, were part of our Struggle to Stay series that documented the lives of six Appalachians who were deciding whether to keep their roots here or leave home. Each year, thousands of Appalachians move away to find opportunities elsewhere. But these two friends from Lincoln and Cabell Counties both expressed a desire to stay in the Mountain State.

“I love to travel. I love to see new places, but nothing compares to West Virginia, I don’t think,” said Crystal, a mother of two, who desperately wants to make a living in Appalachia. “It’s just not home —like, if you see flat, if you see too far, it’s like, this isn’t right.”

Both Crystal and Colt have spent the past 2 ½ years as farming apprentices with Refresh Appalachia, a job-training program with the nonprofit Coalfield Development Corporation, based in southern West Virginia. The organization’s five apprenticeship programs teach skills like carpentry and solar panel installation, and participants can work toward their associate’s degree at a community college. Coalfield Development covers tuition, and the job is secure, as long as participants keep their grades up. The program is funded in part by federal money allocated under the Obama administration to coal-producing states transitioning away from that economy.

Colt and Crystal met through Refresh Appalachia, bonding over shared struggles with multi-generational poverty and family substance abuse. But they also share a sense of determination to succeed, and to overcome the obstacles of their past.

As Colt put it, “Every part of me feels born and raised here and feels a part of this land.”

Their boss at Refresh Appalachia, Ben Gilmer, said people in the region are watching what happens to Crystal and Colt. “They provide a model for people who are taking a bold step. “They are changing the narrative, I think. I’ve heard it, and seen it. And you know I think that’s one key to central Appalachia is having those examples of people to point to.”

This May, Colt and Crystal will both complete their associate’s degrees in applied science. They will also be the first two graduates of the Refresh Appalachia program.

Listen below to hear what they plan to do after graduation -- and whether they find a way to make a living as farmers in West Virginia.

Music in today’s show was provided by Marisa Anderson and Ben Townsend.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd. Ibby Caputo edited this episode. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can e-mail us at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.