Empowering Youth in a Rural Appalachian Community

September 9, 2022 | Ohio

Empowering Youth in a Rural Appalachian Community

September 9, 2022 | CDF-Ohio Youth Blog

By Tyrek Mitchell, Ohio State University Undergraduate & CDF Beat The Odds Scholar

While driving through southeastern Ohio most people will notice the large amount of corn fields, livestock, and rural small towns. These views can convey the idea of a simplistic and hard-working group of good-willed people, but beneath the surface of this facade is a massive issue. The youth in southeastern Ohio are plagued by issues of substance abuse and mental illness, crime, poverty, poor representation, and the lack of opportunity for personal and professional development. Without proper resources and representation, this issue will only continue to grow.

Take Guernsey county for an example. It sits in the southeastern part of the state and is where interstate 70 and 77 cross. Guernsey is also only a 40-minute drive from the Ohio and West Virginia border. According to the CDC, West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths and Ohio takes the #4 spot. This creates a hotspot for drug use in the area. Guernsey County is set up perfectly for anyone passing through the area as it contains many hotels and restaurant chains due to the popular interstate crossing. Although this provides convenience for travelers, it can also be utilized for drug trafficking. The county faced an all-time high for overdose related deaths in 2017 with synthetic opiates being the main contributor. A 2021 investigation led to the arrest of three men in possession of 93g of fentanyl, firearms, and multiple cell phones being used for drug trafficking. Detective Brian Carpenter of the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Department claimed the amount of fentanyl seized could “kill everyone in Guernsey County, and then some.” Drugs are massively available and easy to get ahold of and unfortunately local youth are subject to use and exposure.

It’s not just the narcotics issue. Along with the majority of southeast Ohio, Guernsey County lies in the bottom third of median family income while also seeing a large spike in single parent households, according to FRED Economic Research. As far as education goes, all districts that reside in the area have test scores that sit bellow the state average. One of the districts, Cambridge City Schools, saw a 10% decrease in graduation rate in 2021 (Public School Review). It is hard to imagine students getting much homework done when so many other things are going on at home. Local children are plagued by factors that eradicate the mental and physical nourishment they receive as they grow. Ohio as a whole has seen a 70% increase in teen suicide in 2020 while frequent mental distress grew by 36% according to America’s Health Rating.

I can attest the truth behind these issues because this is the place where my family resides and where I grew up, meaning that I was subject to the environment created by these problems. My parents did all they could to provide for us but could not seem to avoid being swept under the fabric of the local issues at hand. My father even went as far as participating in a local home invasion. Unfortunately, it went very sour, resulting in murder charges that carried a life sentence. While barely keeping her head above the water, my mother was left to care for 4 kids on her own.

Fortunately, she acted, realizing that this exposure and lifestyle would yield negative results for her children. She did everything in her power to ensure there was food on the table, even if it was from the local food pantry. She encouraged participation in athletics and expected nothing less than 100% effort in the classroom. I took all the advanced courses I could, worked multiple jobs simultaneously, and pushed myself to physical, emotional, and mental limits. Her support was never lacking in terms of my athletic and academic success. Although I grew up without my father in my life, I was still able to find supplemental mentorship in upperclassman, coaches, instructors, and even the parents of close friends.

I am now starting my final year here at The Ohio State University studying Civil Engineering. Over the last three years I’ve thought a lot about the position I would be in if my mother hadn’t given me all the support that she did. I look back on my peers and think about how different their lives would be if they had someone who made the impact that my mentors did on me. My half-sister is currently in the county jail for drug abuse and probation violations. What if she had received the mentorship and love that I did? Questions like these can only revolve in one’s mind for so long until action must be taken.

These rural areas can often be overlooked by large organizations. It did not take much digging to figure out that mentorship resources for students in the area are slim to none. Knowing what the children are exposed to, I’ve begun the process of starting my own program in the area. I can connect my social and professional networks to provide guidance and mentorship for local youth. Students will hear from company executives, college athletes, and government officials who have battled against similar conditions and came out on top. With things such community service events, small group talk, and lunch and learn activities, mentees will have various opportunities to grow and develop despite their constrictive environment. The most important part of this process was realizing how important it can be to reach your hand out to those who are sharing similar experiences as you once did. Mentorship is in the mind of every developing child and can have a life changing effect. Every chance you get to be in the position of a mentor, do it to the best of your ability. Your influence could shape the future of your community’s next generation.