Nobody knows what it will take for the flooded counties in Eastern Kentucky to recover – or even what “recovery” might look like. But if anything is to happen in these places that Whitesburg newspaper editor Ben Gish described as “annihilated,” it is going to take money. A lot of it.

Now is a good time to review a basic financial fact of life in rural America. There is simply not as much money available in rural communities from private philanthropies as there is in cities.

Even though 14% of Americans live in rural* communities, these places receive only 7% of the grants and donations from private foundations.

The discrepancy is even more profound in poor rural regions. Look at this chart, which recently appeared in a publication from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

From “Investing in Rural Prosperity,” a volume of essays published by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

Yes, in one five-year period, coal counties received only 10% of the money from private foundations as the national average, figured on a per person basis. Coal counties received only ONE PERCENT of the amount spent per capita by private foundations in San Francisco.

The ad the Fayette Community Foundation produced to raise funds for Eastern Kentucky flood recovery.

OK, that’s an old story, really. We’ve all known for some time about this imbalance of caring. The question today is what do we do?

One answer is we need to help each other – especially communities that have suffered from floods.

La Grange, Texas, where I live, was flooded exactly five years ago by rains from Hurricane Harvey. We received a lot of help from all over the country. When we saw the reports from Eastern Kentucky, we figured it was time to give back.

The Fayette Community Foundation is now collecting money that will soon go to the Mennonite Disaster Service for Eastern Kentucky. The foundation put an ad in the local paper seeking donations, reminding everyone that La Grange and Eastern Kentucky are not so different.

And…..

The following Wednesday the only mail in the foundation’s postbox were checks for Eastern Kentucky.

We are sending our money to the Mennonites because Mennonite Disaster Service was key to our “recovery.” MDS helped rebuild dozens of houses and construct an entirely new subdivision. Their work in La Grange showed the truth in the joke that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) really stands for Find Every Mennonite Available.

I can add one more story of recovery. After Harvey, many families were living in hotels, cooking in microwaves and eating out of mini refrigerators. Seventeen churches in the La Grange area decided to provide two hot meals a week to anyone who wanted to eat. Church members would cook at home and then bring the food to the local VFW Hall.  The meals went on for months.

Contributions to the Fayette Community Foundation in La Grange, Texas, designated for Mennonite Disaster Service to help families in Eastern Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Bill Bishop)

One of our volunteers was telling a representative of Samaritan’s Purse about the meals. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical organization that provides relief to hard-hit communities around the world, and this official was in town to see what was needed in La Grange.

When he heard the story about the meals, the Samaritan’s Purse official did a double take. He asked our friend if he had heard correctly, that 17 churches were cooperating in this meal program. She said yes. He excused himself, saying he needed to make a phone call.

When he returned, he said Samaritan’s Purse would provide $3 million for new housing. He said any place where 17 churches could work together seemed like a good investment.

The money was vital to building Hope Hill, a subdivision where many flood victims eventually found their permanent homes.

Many of La Grange’s flood victims found permanent homes in the new Hope Hill subdivision. Financial support from outside the region is part of what made the new housing possible. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

The larger lesson is about the power of community. Development, in the end, is a do-it-yourself job. You do it yourself or it doesn’t get done.

People in coal country know about development from the outside – be it by the coal companies, which dug the coal and left, or the Appalachian Regional Commission, which delivered the federal government’s idea of what the region should be. Neither provided much in the way of prosperity.

People in these flooded counties come from strong communities. You don’t dig coal out of 30-inch seams unless you know how to cooperate.

Recovery must come out of these communities. They can find a way. But these people are also going to need help.

Our check will go out in a couple of weeks.


Bill Bishop is a Daily Yonder contributing editor and founding co-editor of the publication. He served as the Daily Yonder’s first co-editor from 2007 to 2012.


* We’re defining rural as “nonmetropolitan,” meaning counties that are not located within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, a designation determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget (2013).

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