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, launched a series of stories called “The Struggle to Stay”. Reporters have spent about a year following the lives of six 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 Reid Frazier

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.

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.