The Struggle to Stay

Parts of Appalachia are bleeding population; the 2015 U.S. Census showed West Virginia was losing population faster than any other state. There’s a palpable struggle to leave, but also to stay in these hills.

In April of 2017, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast, Inside Appalachia, is launching a new series of stories called “The Struggle to Stay”. Reporters have spent 6-12 months following the lives of 6 individuals as they decide if they will stay or leave home - and how they survive either way.

As people watch friends and neighbors move away, some want to join them, but can't afford it. Others feel obligated to stay. Some are compelled to remain in Appalachia with dreams of turning their region into one that's economically and culturally vibrant, while proving its value to the rest of the country.

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Here’s an introduction to the people you’ll meet and follow on their journey of finding a place to belong:

Credit Roxy Todd

Colt Brogan, age 20. A native of Lincoln County who is learning to farm at his former high school through the Coalfield Development Corporation. Colt says he wants to stay in West Virginia but knows it can be tough to make a living here. He says his childhood was unstable, and he dreams of owning a farm and raising a family in West Virginia.

Credit Charles Kleine

Mark Combs, age 32. A disabled veteran who has seen many of his closest friends and fellow veterans succumb to suicide, Mark determined he had to leave to find success as a comedian and an artist. These stories follow Mark and his friend as they set out on the open road, beginning in the fall of 2016. With hopes, dreams, and a lot of encouragement from friends - will he be able to find his place outside the state?

Credit Liz McCormick

Kyra Soliel-Dawe, age 20. An aspiring actor who has formed a small theater company in Shepherdstown. They don’t feel like the conventional theater groups take them seriously yet, partly because they are all so young. Kyra dreams of being recognized as an artist here in West Virginia.

Credit Roxy Todd

Crystal Snyder, age 37. A single mother of two, Crystal lost her job working in a T-shirt factory two years ago. She was hired to work with Coalfield Development’s Refresh Appalachia program, the same company that employs Colt. She wants to stay in West Virginia, but has considered leaving for work or school if the opportunity arises. But moving would be difficult because her children have roots here.

Credit Benny Becker

Derek Akal, age 21. Derek left home with a college football scholarship, but a spinal injury took him off the field, so he quit school and came back home to Lynch, a coal camp town in Harlan County, Kentucky. For generations, Derek’s family and others in the coalfields’ African American community have found themselves leaving home to chase better wages.

Credit Dave Hathaway

Dave Hathaway, age 38. A laid-off coal miner who lives in Greene County, Pennsylvania. He and his family have lots of roots in Pennsylvania, and so he feels that he can’t leave. He and his wife just had a baby. She has a job and is the main bread winner in his family.

The Struggle to Stay project builds on a collaboration between WV Living Magazine and West Virginia Public Broadcasting and became a long-term reporting project that includes stations in the Appalachia region: West Virginia Public Broadcasting, WMMT in Kentucky, the Allegheny Front in Pennsylvania, and the reporting collaborative Ohio Valley ReSource.

Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s nothing unusual to think about leaving your hometown after you graduate high school, but sometimes it’s not an option to leave, and sometimes, as we’ve heard, leaving can be difficult and expensive, too. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Kyra Soleil-Dawe, Kyra, The Struggle to Stay
Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Last week, we met Kyra Soleil-Dawe, a 20-year-old aspiring theater director and playwright who lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

“And this place is so beautiful," Kyra said, "how would you ever wanna leave it? And I hope that I’m not the only one that sees that, I hope that I’m not the only one that sees that there’s something really incredible happening here.”

Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

 


In 2014, when Kyra Soleil-Dawe was 17-years-old, they formed a small, theater company out of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle in Shepherdstown – a historic, artsy, college town just miles from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Cameron Williams

Last September Mark Combs and Cameron Elias Williams set out for California hoping to develop careers in the arts and entertainment industry. But once they reached Denver they found it difficult to get their lives financially under control. They also fought loneliness.

“It's been, it's been kinda tough to be honest. I didn't think I would miss people back home this much,” Mark recorded after a lonely Thanksgiving in Denver.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse.

Mark Combs

Our Struggle to Stay series continues as we follow actor and Iraqi war veteran Mark Combs and his good friend and artist, Cameron Elias Williams. These young men took off from West Virginia hoping to land on their feet in Los Angeles - the land of abundant creative jobs - far from their economically depressed homes in Appalachia. But the target life in L.A. was harder to hit than expected. 


Cameron Williams

Day One

Very early one fall day in 2016, Mark Combs set west from Morgantown, West Virginia, with lots of hope, California dreams, and as many belongings as he could fit into a small SUV -- including a few companions.

“I’m feeling really positive about the trip,” Mark said into a handheld recorder while stopped at a gas station somewhere in Ohio. “We started out very, very strong this morning. We’re still going strong.” 

He was traveling with his border collie Lily, a cat named Terror Czar (TC for short), and his good friend from theater school and fellow West Virginian Cameron "Elias" Williams -- a dancer, rapper, writer and like Mark, a comedian. Together, they’ve been planning this move West with similar ambitions.

Charles Kleine / West Virginia Public Broacasting

Mark Combs is among a community of West Virginians who have decided that -- despite a deep love for Appalachia -- they have no choice but to leave the region. His “Struggle to Stay” actually made staying impossible.

Roxy Todd/ WVPB

The fire was rough on Colt. He didn’t hear from his mother for weeks at a time, and he lost a lot of sleep worrying about where she was staying, and what would happen to her, now that she was homeless. He and his mom drifted apart again, and they haven’t spoken much over the past few months.

But winter was, in many ways, a turning point for Colt.

Courtesy Maria Marotto

“If you want to stay in West Virginia, then I believe you’re doing something right," Colt Brogan told West Virginia Public Broadcasting for The Struggle to Stay series. "I mean, cause it’s hard to want to stay here in my opinion. Cause it is so rough.”


The Struggle to Stay stories follow Appalachians as they try to figure out if they will stay or leave home, and how they are going to survive here if they do. Our first Appalachian in this series is Colt Brogan. He’s a 20 year old West Virginian who says he’s determined to stay. More than just living here, though, Colt says he has big goals. He hopes to someday own a farm.  

Roxy Todd

20-year-old Colt Brogan always found it easy to make fairly good grades in school. As a kid, he’d dreamed of being an architect. But that changed. Around the time when he was a junior in high school, Colt decided college wasn’t for him.

“It felt too unpredictable. I thought, dealing drugs is safer than going to college. That’s the God’s honest truth,” says Colt.

Roxy Todd/ WVPB

In high school, Colt planned on joining the Army, or maybe working for a  construction company, anything except working to avoid working in the coal mines, A lot of families in his community have worked as miners.. When he was in high school, he saw many miners lose their jobs- including his stepfather. Despite the economic challenges, he wants to stay in West Virginia to be close to his family, especially his 7-year-old brother, River. It’s been a struggle for Colt to find a way to stay in West Virginia.