Returning to their roots

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September 15, 2011

10:14 PM

Say the names Mary and J.R. White in Clinchco, Virginia, and a warm spark of recognition will spread through many of the residents of the mountainous southwestern Virginia town. Twelve students at the College of William and Mary also got to know the Whites this past spring break on a Branch Out National service trip to Clinchco as they worked with health related issues in the town.

These students’ service did not end with a trip, however. This past summer, trip leaders Taylor Nelson ’13 and Akie Fujita ’13 found out that Mary and J.R.’s house had burned down and that they had lost everything. The group is now mobilizing to help these two people, who have dedicated their lives helping their struggling community.

The name of the service trip to Clinchco, “First world country, third world clinic,” highlights the poverty as well as the health issues that many in southwestern Virginia face. In Dickinson County, where Clinchco is located, a third of the residents live in trailers or mobile homes, and due to both the poverty and a shortage of healthcare providers, healthcare is severely limited in the region. These factors, combined with a high prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, creates a region with lower-than-average life expectancies.

“One of the biggest problems facing the region is health care,” Mel Alim ’14, a participant on the trip, said. “They have a different culture there. One of the health providers there was talking about how when she was growing up, her parents would give her all these fried foods, and it became a norm. So that’s what she fed her kids, even though she knew it wasn’t good; it was just a cultural thing. A lot of [the health problems there] are preventable, but it’s at a structural level.”

During the trip the group worked with an organization called Health Wagon, which provides free health services and educates southwestern Virginians on diabetes prevention.

“The clinic is a mobile RV,” Nelson said. “Transportation is a key problem in a lot of areas, but because they go to the patients it’s more accessible health care,” said Nelson. While transportation is a problem, the larger issue is that people simply can’t afford health care, which makes the free service the Health Wagon provides invaluable.

The group stayed at a bunk house that was part of a community center owned by Mary and J.R. White. Not only did the group get to know the Whites, but they also got to see the impact that the Whites have on Clinchco through their community center.

“Going to Clinchco and seeing not only the inequality in the community but also seeing how the Whites bring this community together was very impactful,” Nelson said. “They’ve done numerous initiatives [through their community center], reaching out and helping people in many ways.”

The initiatives run through the community center are designed to address a variety of issues. The center provides a food program to address the issue of hunger, offers a drug education program to help alleviate
drug problems in the area, and organizes volunteers who do house repairs.

“They offer [the community center] to a lot of student groups as well as many other people,” Alim said.
Education, too, is a big issue in the area since according the Health Wagon’s 2009 Annual report, roughly half of the population over age 25 don’t have a high school diploma. The community center, though, helps make people more competitive in the job market.

“A lot of people didn’t have a lot of hope, as a lot of times poverty is all around you, and many struggle with figuring out how they are going to make a living or how your parents are,” Nelson said.

Through their community center, though, the Whites served as a source of hope.

This past summer Branch Out National received a letter sent by one of the White’s good friends, describing the White’s situation and asking for any help that could be provided.

“A tree fell on a power line by their house which started a fire. Their house was uninsured and they lost everything, so they’re currently living in a trailer,” Fujita said.

Once everyone returned to campus, the group was ready to hit the ground running in working to help the Whites. They decided to raise funds to help alleviate the costs the Whites are now facing. Thus far, the group has been networking with other Branch Out groups and Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship to organize their efforts. This Friday the 16th they will be holding a bake sale on the terrace and will be accepting donations. Anonymous donations can be sent to CSU, 3881.

Aside from working to help the Whites, the group hopes to continue to keep in touch with them.

“They were like family to us,” Nelson said. “We definitely want to keep in contact with them and keep in touch with how they are.”

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