A group of students from Harlan and Harlan County high schools were asked Thursday if they had family members who had lost jobs in the coal industry. Almost all of the 20 plus students raised their hands.
Then, the students were asked if those who lost their jobs had found new employment. Not a single hand went up.
The leadership students from the two schools were taking part in a town hall meeting for local youth designed to gain insight from the younger generation on problems and solutions for the area as part of President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone initiative.
Harlan is one of eight counties in the state eligible for priority funding through grants and other initiatives as a result of the declaration.
Marisa Aull, extension associate for the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, asked students what one wish they would have for the community if she could wave a magic pen and make it happen. The students’ ideas will be included in a regional plan which will fall backward into a county plan.
Several responses were given including Harlan County’s Haley Cook hoping for a YMCA or athletic facility, Harlan high’s Will Slusher suggestion for tax breaks for industry and Harlan County’s Adam Clem who would like to see a major power production facility, possibly, a nuclear facility, located here.
Students also listed several other items they believe could help improve the county’s future. These included less emphasis on sports and more on academics.
Students expressed concern about limited activities currently available to them, the grim outlook for the region and more opportunities elsewhere as the primary reasons most will not return here after college.
Students realize the primary employment prospects presently in the county are in health care and education.
“Coal mining is dying out,” said one student.
“There are a lot of dead end jobs — minimum wage and no opportunity to move up,” added another student.
Students were quick to note many attributes they believe to be assets and could play an important role in shaping the county’s future. These included the environment, scenic mountains, quiet space, outdoor activities, hardworking people, Appalachian heritage, pride, not a lot of traffic, zipline, mountain cabins and other outdoor recreation activities.
“Harlan has so much more potential to be greater than it is,” said HCHS junior Hannah Busroe.
HCHS junior Jay Phillips said unity of the county is imperative if change is to occur. “It is like there are brick walls separating districts and communities,” he said.
The senior students participating admitted to being focused on college selection at present, while the juniors said they were concerned about being prepared for college, assessment and other prerequisites to help them land scholarships so they can attend college.
The students agreed there must be increased opportunities for students to learn of postsecondary opportunities besides the local community college and they want to be informed about the career and vocational education courses of study available to them.
One student said she felt the vocational classes aren’t promoted because “they are looked down on.”
Students did not dwell on blame for the current crisis, but said poor leadership, lack of usable land, lack of diversity in the economy, roads, inadequate infrastructure and apathy are all part of the problem.
Aull told the students they must stay involved in the process and challenged them to attend public meetings such as fiscal court.
“That is a lot to ask of you,” she said, while emphasizing the importance of doing so. “You will have to take ownership of it… For this community to thrive, some of you are going to have to come back. “
Busroe, with agreement from her peers, stated the town hall meetings need to continue down into the middle school grades “because we are going to be gone.”