Tuesday December 29, 2015

Rag Tag Group of Hippies

By Beth Wahl-Kuzmick

My first trip down to Kentucky was in the fall of 1970. We were traveling down to Kentucky every weekend, to get settled into the new house we had found on 22 Mile Branch and make connections with the folks in Salyersville. Let's just say we were pretty new in town back then and they really didn't know what to make of this "rag tag" group of "Hippies" from up North!!! Tom Litzkay was the president of our little club (and it was mighty little at that time!). Rosie, my good friend from high school back in Rochester, N.Y., had talked me into going to a club meeting. Once I met Tom, experienced his passion and vision for helping the people of Magoffin County, I was hooked! I would have followed this man anywhere, even down a dark holler road in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky on a Friday night in October of 1970! Pretty scary for a young girl from upstate New York who hardly made it out of her own backyard during her first 18 years! At that time I thought coming all the way to Ohio from upstate New York was adventurous! Imagine what was going through my head as I followed Tom and the others down the holler road on that ink black night with Tom telling us "Kentucky stories" all the way to the house! Why, I might as well have just landed on the moon!!!!!

Talking my parents into letting me spend 6 weeks down in Kentucky that following summer was quite a feat! But having my two high school buddies Rosie and Marianne along for "the ride" helped my cause!

I was put in charge of getting materials together and ultimately running the "summer school" we were hoping to offer for the children of the town and surrounding area. Our goals for that summer of getting kids to show up for our school and doing a lot of "front porch" sitting were probably small compared with today's groups.

In those early days it was about developing relationships and gaining people's trust. I had an incredibly small budget to work with at that time but managed to come up with just enough stuff to get us through. Bill Wagner was our group leader that summer. Having been born and raised in Kentucky he had a special love and connection with the people of Magoffin County. They liked his easy and open manners. They ultimately opened their doors and hearts to him! Our first week in Salyersville, we went "canvassing." Basically, what this means is, Bill would drive us all over the place in the van and dump us off in the middle of nowhere in groups of two. It was our job to go up and down the holler roads, knock on doors, introduce ourselves, tell people about our little play school in town (luckily we had found an empty house we were allowed to use), and ask them to trust us to pick up their kids in our van take them to our school and bring them back at the end of the day. A daunting and sometimes scary task! We got chased by dogs, yelled at and some doors slammed in our faces. Amazingly, some opened their doors, listened to what we had to say and even invited us in! One of those families was the Blantons who would come to be our group's good friends and guiding force during that summer!

That Monday of the second week, an amazing thing happened! As we crossed our fingers at the many intersections of the roads there were kids standing there waiting to be picked up by our van! I can still feel the joy and excitement we all felt as kids piled in. At first our numbers were small however word travels fast in a small town! Pretty soon kids from town were just walking down the road to come to our school after hearing that there was lots of fun going on at that house with those college students from U.D. plus cookies and Kool Aid too! Some of us worked at the school while others in the group gravitated to the front porches in town. There was a lot of rocking and talking that went on that summer. The folks in town were learning a lot about us and we, in turn, were learning so much more from them. I remember the Blantons inviting our entire group into their humble home and offering us a generous dinner. They were so kind and opened up their hearts to us. I remember little Cassie. She couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. She captured my heart with her sweet gap toothed smile! She was one of my favorite little ones that summer! By 4th of July, the town folks were pretty used to us being around. We were invited to the big 4th of July celebration. Lots of good food and, of course, square dancing!!! To this day I can recall the exhilaration of being passed around that dancing circle, being grabbed up and guided by so many hands!!! It was then that I knew we had truly arrived in Salyersville!!!

We became so attached to the children and families of Salyersville. Because of this it was truly a heart ache for us when the town was decimated by a flash flood that summer. The rains came so suddenly and so hard! Our road was washed out and we were stranded. We couldn't get our van down the road. So we made our way into town on foot to see what we could do to help. It was such a sadness to see what little the folks had in their humble homes destroyed by the flood waters. We were pretty powerless in the face of this catastrophe. It was a humbling experience and drove home to us the fact that there were so many big problems in Eastern Ky. That called for big solutions a small band of college kids could not provide at that time.

Through all our joys, challenges and sorrows that summer of '71, our group grew very close! Rosie & Frank fell in love that summer, were married in the U.D. Chapel and chose to live in the Magoffin County area for several years after that first visit. Frank was a teacher and Rosie worked in the health care area there. After that summer, Tony Oppegard pursued a law degree and went on to be an advocate for coal miner's rights and safety. I know others in the group were impacted greatly by their experiences and either pursued careers or volunteer opportunities that were a reflection of their "Hill Top" summer experience in Salyersville Kentucky.

Even today as I pursue my mission involvement in the mountains of Jamaica at St, John Bosco Home for Boys run by the Sister's of Mercy, I can still see the sweet smiles of the children of Eastern Kentucky. Reflected in the faces of the needy boys I spend time with. Because, after all, in the end no matter where a mission takes you it really is simply just about LOVE and passing it around in this world to the best of your own individual ability! That is the Appalachia Club's legacy for me in my life today. I am forever grateful for that!

Beth Wahl Kuzmick

P.S....Although my "Memory Lane" reflection centers on the first of my summer experiences with The Appalachia Club, I cannot go without mentioning the volunteer work we did at the Van Buren Center in East Dayton, working with kids. This work was an important learning experience for us....to make that transition of taking what we learned through our experiences in the mountains, bringing it back and applying it to our own local community.

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