What happens to a community as coal jobs go away? Here are some things you might expect: many people leave, schools empty, local businesses struggle to keep their lights on. But here’s something that may not come to mind: extra curricular sports go away.
That’s what happened to children in McDowell County over 25 years ago. They lost their local soccer league. And while the thousands of lost coal jobs may not come back, thanks to a 4-H project, and about a dozen volunteers, soccer is making a comeback in McDowell County.
It’s a windy fall day. Two teams of children hurdle towards a green ball. Parents are cheering, and shivering.
9-year-old Andrew Curry is watching, waiting for his turn to get back into the game.
“I like that you get to run a lot because I used to play baseball and you didn’t get to do a lot of activity,” says Andrew. He likes to play defense the best. He’s one of 156 elementary students playing soccer this year in McDowell County.
The games are held once a week at Mt. View High School.
Parents and other volunteers coach for free, people like Tom Morsi, a retired coal miner.
“We started a soccer program up here in Welch 26 years ago,” says Morsi. “Jobs started going down, people started leaving, going to other states...and they disbanded. Now a lot of kids that played soccer have kids that play in this soccer league. It’s come full circle.”
Morsi says they want to keep the cost low to make soccer available to any child who wants to play. Parents pay $10, local businesses and funding from West Virginia University’s 4-H program pays for the rest.
Although there is no breakdown of childhood obesity rates by county, here in McDowell, 45% of adults are obese. That’s almost twice the national average, of 28%.
Take McDowell County, where traveling 30 miles through rugged mountains means an hour’s worth of driving. To help parents have an easier time getting their children to soccer practice, the teams mostly practice in makeshift fields in neighborhoods throughout the county.
Places like "church parking lots or old baseball fields that you could turn them into a practice soccer field,” says Nathaniel Smith, another volunteer who’s helped get this soccer league up and running.
Smith says this soccer league is just one example of what’s possible in McDowell, even though times are hard.
“And my hope is…turn some things around, make some things better, and work together.”
Smith says they’d like to see at least two hundred families sign up to play next year. The economy here may be spinning out of control, but he’s not giving up. He hopes they can start middle and high school teams in the next few years. Smith gestures toward the children at play and says, “these kids are the future of McDowell County.”