BUCKHORN —- Last week, more than a dozen young people convened at Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park to discuss important topics related to the future of eastern Kentucky and the Appalachian region.
The meeting was designed as a listening session of the Leadership Development and Youth Engagement working group, which is part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative.
Most of the attendants were young professionals from Perry County and young people who have moved to the area from other places, but have committed themselves to working and living here. Perry County native, Ethan Hamblin, an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, also attended the event and shared many of his thoughts and ideas about what would improve life for young people in the region, as well as ways to encourage young people to remain in the mountains and to become active participants in their communities.
Hamblin said he used much of what he has learned and experienced through his involvement as an adult mentor for the Foundation’s Youth Leadership and Philanthropy Initiative to inform his comments.
“Part of it is fighting out-migration and hoping that young people, even if they go away to school, will want to come back here after they graduate and start a business here or be an entrepreneur here, to raise a family here, and then, retire here,” he said.
Hamblin stated he believes large rates of out-migration have caused young people to lose their sense of collectiveness. He said, because of this, it is important to instill in the region’s youth a sense of place, familism, strong culture, and a true love of the mountains.
“We need young people who are invested in the community,” he continued. “Young people who believe in this place, love the mountains as their home, and know that they want to stay and that this is their home for life.”
Hamblin thinks these values will inspire more young people to work for positive change throughout the region.
Allison Cooper, an AmeriCorps VISTA member from Denver, Colorado, who serves at the Kentucky Mountain Health Alliance, echoed Hamblin’s sentiments.
“I think that the young people here need to realize that Appalachia has a future that depends on them and their input,” Cooper said.
“I feel like people have lost the ability to dream, in some ways,” she went on. “You know, if you grow up in poverty, you feel like you’re always going to be in poverty. But I think we can make a difference by showing people that there’s another life here and that it can be good.”
Cooper said she felt the listening session was beneficial and she was interested to see where it would end.
Mae Humiston, an Appalachian Transition Fellow working with the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, said meetings like these can serve as a means to embolden other young people.
“If they see other young people having a say and participating, then they can feel the confidence that their voice can make a difference, too,” Humiston said.
Humiston said she would like to see the listening sessions spur communities into action by giving them an incentive to implement the ideas generated by their young people.
“True community and economic development is a long-term process,” Hamblin said. “We have to understand that, if we’re truly going to make change in eastern Kentucky and if the SOAR initiative is truly going to work, it’s going to take a long time. And it’s a process.”
Hamblin said it’s important for people to be aware that the SOAR meetings are for everyone, not just for a small working group or only for those active in the initiative itself.
“This is our work in shaping our Appalachian region,” he said.
But, he said, people need to be truly invested in the work.
“If we want to be truly invested in it, then who’s going to be leading it 25-50 years down the road? The young people. That’s why I think this working group is so important,” he said.
The three said they will be watching to see what SOAR does with the suggestions they’ve made.
More SOAR listening sessions will be held this summer. Visit www.soar-ky.org for a schedule.
Mindy Miller can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.