In Lawrence County, many children and adults don’t have the means to leave their homes
In late August, Shelley Oxenham, U.S. Projects Specialist for Children Incorporated, and I traveled to Lawrence County, Kentucky to visit Louisa Middle School and Lawrence County High School. The two schools are located in the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field region in a very rural part of the state. The county is one of the largest in the state, meaning the distances between stores, homes, schools, and businesses are vast.
There is no quick trip to anywhere in Lawrence County; even going to buy a carton of milk or visiting the post office can take twenty or thirty minutes by car - and that is for those who are fortunate enough to have reliable vehicles. For people living in poverty that can’t afford to own a car, such large distances between destinations create huge problems.
Shelley and I first met with our Volunteer Coordinators Luann Kelly and Anne Preece in Luann’s office at Louisa Middle School; Anne’s office is at Lawrence County High School only a few hundred yards from the middle school, up a big hill, but only a short walk away. It is one of the few times on my many trips to Eastern Kentucky that I have seen schools within walking distance of one another. Luann has been working in the school system for eighteen years; Anne is newer and has been at the school for only a few years, but she has gotten to know the students well.
Of the 440 children that attend the middle school and the 691 that attend the high school, fifty children are currently enrolled in our program. But both Luann and Anne told us that many more children could benefit from having sponsors. One in four people in Lawrence County lives in poverty, and the unemployment rate is 10.9 percent.
Finding a way to feed kids
Luann and Anne talked with us about the difficulties that so many of these families face. Many of the children come from broken homes and are being raised by their grandparents; several of them live in foster care. Luann told us about one family in particular that currently has three children at the middle school; she sends food home with the kids not only on the weekends, which is most typical ofbackpack feeding programs at resource centers, but also during the week, because the parents can’t afford to feed the children dinner at night.
Thankfully, since eighty percent of the children in Lawrence County would already qualify for free lunch from the government, the county provides free lunch to all students, so families don’t have to worry about feeding their kids - at least during the day, while school is in session.
But once the school year is over, it’s hard for the parents again; summers present a big problem for families. The schools in Lawrence County have summer feeding programs, but the school buses don’t run when school is out, so there is no way to get the children from their homes to the schools to eat, and parents don’t have a way to drive their kids to the school to take advantage of the program.
The transportation issues aren’t just about whether parents can get their kids to and from places to receive support. Luann and Anne also told us that during the school year, because the county is so large, many children get on the bus at 6:00 a.m. and don’t get home until 5:00 p.m. The students that are picked up first and dropped off last might be on the bus for an hour or more to and from school each day. There is no way to make it easier for any of them, or to make the commute any shorter, because they live far from the school. Because of this, the children are often tired during class and don’t have much time in the evenings for homework, extracurricular activities, or to play with their friends.
No way to get to work
It’s not just the younger middle school students who are affected by not having a means of transportation, either. Seventy percent of high school-aged students can’t work because they are unable to get work, and there is no public transit on which to rely. Even though they may be old enough and responsible enough to be employed at fast food restaurants or convenient stores, if they can’t afford a vehicle, they can’t work - and they are therefore unable to help their families with additional income or save money for college.
For parents, there are few options for jobs in Lawrence County other than working for the hospital or in the school system. So many of them have to drive out of town to work – sometimes an hour or two, and sometimes as far as South Carolina and North Carolina. A lack of transportation also makes it difficult for parents who are disabled and living in poverty to get to doctors’ appointments; or for grandparents with little or no income, but who are raising children, to get to the social security office or to a local church to get clothes or food for the children in their care.
It’s hard to think about these kids not getting the opportunities they deserve in life when something like access to transportation - which is a simple part of most of our daily lives - keeps so many impoverished people in Lawrence County from getting where they need to go. Luann told us that after high school, graduates often drive 45 minutes to a local community college to study woodworking, nursing, heavy machine operation, mechanics, or to take culinary classes - great skills that can help them get good jobs. It is important as children get older that they not miss out on moving on to get a higher education or employment simply because they don’t have the means to leave their homes.