The project "Traveling 219: a Trip Through History on the Seneca Trail" has for the past two and a half years worked to tell the stories of the people and places along US 219 in West Virginia. We have written newspaper articles, produced audio stories for WV Public Radio, and developed a website, www.traveling219.com.
All along, we've been following in the footsteps of the folks who documented these same communities 70-plus years ago through the New Deal Federal Writers Project. At that time, the FWP project was increasingly under attack by congressional leaders who said it was a waste of taxpayer money, and in 1941 the Federal Writers' Project was shut down. A portion of their work was published in the 1942 volume "West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State", a comprehensive telling of our state's story and the first ever travel guide to West Virginia. But 90% of their work did not make it into the Guide. Those writings have sat in archives virtually untouched for all these years. When we began going through the archives of this writing, we found countless untold stories, retracing us back to a time when West Virginia was in the midst of the Great Depression.
In 2010 when we decided to begin our "rebirth of the Federal Writers' Project," we never realized how much our own times would prove to mirror those of the Depression years. Just as the New Deal work programs were cut in the early 1940s, we've just learned that in 2013 federal budget cuts due to the Sequester have led to a slashing of VISTA programs. AmeriCorps VISTAs in West Virginia will not be able to renew their terms of service in West Virginia next year, and no new VISTAs will be placed until November at the earliest. Traveling 219 was built by the work of AmeriCorps VISTAs, including myself, who developed the project as a VISTA volunteer.
Other states are not experiencing these harshest of budget cuts to their VISTA programs. West Virginia VISTA programs have been slashed by 50%, as opposed to a 10% cut in VISTA programs nationwide. VISTA was started as an anti-poverty program 48 years ago, and VISTAs in West Virginia work in education, child welfare, senior programs, libraries, environmental groups, health programs and many more community service projects.
On a personal level, one thing about being a VISTA is that you are offered an experience that will make you grow and learn new things about yourself. Before I served as a VISTA, I never knew that I loved history. But when Pauline Baker told me that the neighborhood children, rich and poor, all learned to swim in the old blue bubbling waters of the recently vacated Sweet Springs Resort, I could have melted into the worlds that she had conjured up. Hazel Shrader, also of Monroe County, told me about the hungry people who used to walk down the highway, picking up apples to eat. In Huntington, she said, people were so hungry, they had to put guards on the dumpsters because children were breaking in to the garbage to find something to fill their empty bellies.
VISTA is a program that is intended to fight poverty. What a good VISTA realizes is that we are all experiencing poverty, the rich and the poor, if we are not connected to others and challenged to work with both our minds and our hearts.
That type of experience is not available to many college graduates today. The VISTA program is one of the best opportunities we have to keep young West Virginians in West Virginia.
Please call your Congressional Representative to tell them how you feel about West Virginia's VISTA cuts. If you would like to learn more about the project I helped to build as an AmeriCorps VISTA, visit www.Traveling219.com. We are working to re-engage the next generation of West Virginians to be proud of what we are- our mountain ridges laced with snow, our rivers spilling across limestone rock. Along every crooked West Virginia road, good people are speaking to us from their porches, their voices to the wind but their faces braced with endurance. They are reminding us not to turn the next corner without remembering what came before.
Buckhannon, WV and Denton, TX