Southsider Voice correspondent
Led by Starla Hilgert, a missionary team from University Heights United Methodist Church recently spent a week working with residents of McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the United States.
The area is suffering because of the coal industry collapse, said Hilgert. “A lot of people are out of jobs. People have left the area, and it’s destitute in many areas.”
Located on the state’s southwestern border with Virginia and close to Kentucky, McDowell County has a median household income of $22,252, which is at the poverty level. USA Today reported in January that more than half of the residents lived in poverty from 2009-13. The county lost roughly 6,000 in population between the 2000 and 2010 census.
“But it’s a very beautiful place,” Hilgert said. “It’s in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. People who have lived there their whole lives, that’s all they know; they love the area; they want to stay there; but it’s very difficult to make a living there.”
Hilgert and her team of 19 stayed in Welch, the county’s largest town, from June 14-18. The group worked with Youth Works to plan the trip and find tasks upon arrival. One was assisting the Highland Educational Project or HEP, a ministry in Welch that has worked with missions teams from all over the country.
“One of our groups went each day to help (with HEP), Hilgert said. “It’s a project that provides clothing, assistance with electrical bills and payments for people who are in need.”
The team split up into five teams, with three going to private homes that needed repairs. Hilgert’s group sorted through donated clothing and household items in two large storage sheds in 90-degree heat so that HEP could use the merchandise to launch a clothing pantry, which opened on the last day of the team’s visit.
Youth Works provided housing for the team in an old middle school. Daily activities included a morning devotional and worship time in the evening.
“They had showers there, and our meals were there,” Hilgert said. “We would pack a lunch and take it with us when we went out to our work site.”
Ten team members were part of the church youth group. Overall, the participants ranged in age from 10 to 73, with one couple celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary while on the trip.
“We have started an intergenerational program where youth and adults work together and do things together,” she said. “It has worked out quite well. The adults learn from the youth and youth learn from the adults. I think it’s important to have adults in the lives of our youth.”
Now that everyone on the team has had time to process their experience, Hilgert says she can easily see University Heights UMC returning to the county in the future.
“Just seeing the people from McDowell County, it gave us a greater appreciation for life and the needs of others; but also how people can live very simply and be very happy and godly people. God’s people are everywhere in all different situations. That was very meaningful to us.”