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Innovation and Education in Appalachia

Posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2011.

Last week was my second ever in Kentucky, and what better way to usher it in than a morning spent traversing meandering mountain roads for a day of recording at the Hindman Settlement School.

Upon arrival in Hindman, we were greeted with an infectious smile by Randy Wilson, Director of the Settlement’s Folk Arts Education Program and one member of a long-serving staff that works tirelessly to serve the changing needs of the Appalachian community. Randy was accompanied by his 90 year old mother, Shirley, with whom he recorded our second interview of the day.

Established in 1902 by a pair of determined young female visionaries, the Hindman Settlement School was the first of its kind in the country: a boarding school for mountain students whose rural lifestyles didn’t include easy access to education, healthcare, and social services. The Settlement quickly became a model institution, an all-purpose bastion of regional culture dedicated in equal parts to preservation and innovation.

Hindman history was brought to life when Mike Mullins and Rebecca Ware came to reminisce about their 60-plus collective years of experience at the Settlement. Mike remembered his first chaotic days as Executive Director in 1977: his staff was being paid less than minimum wage and infrastructure was in such bad shape that the local fire marshal knocked on his door threatening to shut down the school. If the following years have seen the Settlement revitalized, says Mike, it is only because of people “who have given their lives to this school.” He took a special moment to recognize Rebecca for her 35 years of service, most recently as Associate Executive Director.

Mike and Rebecca’s leadership have nurtured the many ongoing initiatives to spearhead community renewal, including education, arts and service programming, funding the county’s oldest public library and a matching mobile book van, and hosting the celebrated Appalachian Writer’s Conference.

Hindman is also home to the Appalachian Artisan Center, an organization that connects artists, crafters and musicians to strengthen Eastern Kentucky economy through the arts. I walked out of the accompanying craft shop and cafe with a stylish canvas addition to my travel gear and an outrageously delicious grilled cheese sandwich: just the combination to keep a sleepy facilitator foot to the floor for the stunning drive back across Pine Mountain.

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