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The front porch is well known across much of Appalachia as a gathering place for conversation and sharing. During the coronavirus, those front porches have become a lifeline, for some — in more ways than one.
For YES! Magazine, in partnership with 100 Days in Appalachia, reporter Alison Stine explored how the ethos of the front porch as a connection point is being used to help keep students and families fed during the COVID-19 pandemic. She spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Brittany Patterson. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.
***Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Stine: I’ve lived in Appalachian Ohio for many, many years. My son was born here, and when he was a newborn, [was when] I think I first became aware of the particular spirit and ingenuity and generosity of my neighbors. Food started appearing on our porch, homemade food for myself and my son. And people would leave hand-me-downs on our porch. And so, as my son has grown older, and I’ve lived for a very long time in the town where I live, you know, we started to give back as well. And I saw that happening in the pandemic, especially now when maybe you can’t go up to somebody’s door and talk to them. People have been leaving notes on porches, or books on porches, disinfected board games, on porches, masks. And so, with YES! Magazine, we wanted to write a story about how that might be formalized. That idea leaving things for other people on the porch. Is that happening on a more formalized manner? Is that happening in larger local networks like the schools and local governments?
Patterson: One thing that this story addresses is the food insecurity that has been really brought to the forefront by this coronavirus pandemic. How is this idea of a front porch network helping get food to children and families?
Stine: What we see happening throughout the region, but I think also now nationally, is food is being delivered to school children through their bus routes. We talked about in the story that the buses aren’t sitting empty, you know, parked in the bus garages, the buses are still running and the drivers are still driving. But instead of taking kids to school and to home, they’re taking meals to children. They already had those routes established, and schools already knew who was in need. So, school buses had been delivering initially, I think they were delivering food daily, but now in many places, including places in West Virginia and Ohio, they’re delivering food bags once a week.
Patterson: They’re also delivering other things that students might need during this time. Tell us a little bit about that.
Stine: Yeah, some school districts have started delivering homework even. The idea was not that students would turn in the homework and have it be graded. But just this is a way not to fall behind, which is really important for our region, because we have some rural areas, some remote areas, not everyone has internet at home. There was one school district in Kanawha County, West Virginia, that the teachers would ride on the bus and they ran out and delivered the homework. So, the students got to see that teachers face, which was really important, just to have that sense of familiarity.
Patterson: You write in the piece that, “Appalachians are used to rising to the challenge of taking care of their own communities.” And so they were quickly able to put together these less formal means of delivering aid and helping one another. I’m wondering though, in the organizations that you spoke to, have there been challenges that have arisen since this pandemic started in trying to make sure everyone gets the help they need?
Stine: Some particular challenges in our region that other regions may not have: We do have less internet access, so people are less connected in that way. So, getting the word out, I think, is a difficulty that our region may have the other regions may not have as much to deal with that. Some volunteers in Athens, Ohio, for example, started calling people — calling senior citizens — to make sure they knew [about] places to get food. … We many also have people in our region who don’t have phones. And so volunteers in Athens, Ohio are writing letters to those people.
Patterson: In your reporting have you seen examples outside of Appalachia where organizations or communities are taking this idea of connection via the front porch or access point and using it?
Stine: Absolutely. I think that one area where we see this happening a lot is internet access. We talked about internet access and Appalachia, because we know that we don’t have it as much as other places do. But we’re certainly not the only ones. There are school buses now across the country, not just in the Appalachian region, that are being equipped with Wi-Fi. And they’re parking the school buses in places where students and families who don’t have that internet at home, they can drive up and park and use the wireless there.
Patterson: You mentioned that at least the bus drivers in Kanawha County School District are working on a volunteer basis. What did you hear from some of the bus drivers you spoke to about why they think it’s important to still go out every day even though they’re not getting paid?
Stine: Yeah, that was something that really blew me away. I didn’t realize that was happening until I talked to a bus driver. I talked to Rod Stapler, who’s driven for the district for 10 years. And he thought it was just a really important way to give back. He said that the bus drivers know the children, they know who’s in need, and they want to make sure that they’re okay. And they wanted to help those kids have some sense of normalcy and some sense of safety and security. You know, one thing that kids are used to seeing every day is the face of their bus driver. So, if they can see that once a week, even through a window that might help them as well.
Stine’s new story, “Appalachia’s Front Porch Network Is a Lifeline” was produced in partnership with 100 Days in Appalachia, YES! Magazine and WVPB with support from the One Foundation.