From holler to holler.

That’s the message behind an initiative by Virginia Tech students to lend a hand to eastern Kentucky residents and fellow Appalachians whose homes were destroyed by severe flooding about a month ago.

From Sept. 2-4, a group of students enrolled in a Societal Health class this semester will visit Letcher County, Kentucky, where the worst of the flooding occurred in late July.

The flooding made national news, killing at least 38 people and destroying hundreds of homes. 

Kentucky flood damage
Severe flood damage near Isom, Kentucky. Photo submitted by Elaine Tanner of Friends for Environmental Justice.

While there, these Hokies will spend time mucking out houses, preparing food, organizing supplies for the community, and assisting with an Appalachian Roots Benefit Concert for flood relief.

The community service project is part of their course, which examines the importance of social movements and mutual aid for collective well-being. Students will learn how community health and well-being are impacted by factors such as climate change, forced migration, and social injustice.

This trip will give them an up-close look at these issues.

“The way to reach students is to give them real-world opportunities to help them see what's at stake in the classroom learning,” said Emily Satterwhite, an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, who is co-teaching the course. “My other hope is that they can grapple with the relationship between the history of fossil fuel extraction in Appalachia and climate change — both the way that the fossil fuel industry causes and accelerates climate change, but also the extreme, extra vulnerability of fossil fuel communities.”

Satterwhite, who also is director of Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech, was interviewed by several media outlets last month related to the relationship of over mining and mountaintop removal to flooding issues.

Some residents in the region, which has a long history of coal mining, point to the ways that surface mining and mountaintop removal mining contributed to the severity of the flooding. After his visit to the affected area earlier this month, President Biden called the flooding “another sign of dangerous climate change,” according to news reports.

Students in Satterwhite’s graduate-level class also are invited to participate. One of those students, Daniel Grizzard, is a second-year master’s student in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials. His research focuses on finding environmentally sustainable economic opportunities for people living in rural Appalachian communities.

When he saw the news coverage of the massive flooding, Grizzard said he felt powerless. The opportunity to go to Kentucky with this class has changed that feeling for him. 

“I'm really grateful she [Satterwhite] was able to put this all together to allow students to engage with the community and benefit people in a more tangible, direct, and immediate way than research does sometimes,” Grizzard said.

Rebecca Hester, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, co-teaches the class with Satterwhite.

Danille Christensen, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture, also decided to lend a hand to the project. She will lead a quilt tying event with students who are part of her Folk Cultures in Appalachia course. The event will take place Tuesday, Aug. 30, from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Solitude and Fraction houses on campus.

Satterwhite’s students will take the quilts with them to distribute to people in Kentucky.

“I could think of nothing better than a quilting to demonstrate our commitment to collective action and mutual aid, which are both longstanding values in the mountains,” Christensen said.

Several other Virginia Tech groups have joined in on the project, including VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning. Funds contributed by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies will offset volunteers’ travel costs.

The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets also is joining the cause. When Deputy Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Travis Sheets learned about the trip, he moved quickly to make it possible for cadets to attend. Cadets answered the call in droves, and Satterwhite arranged to transport an additional 11 volunteers, with experiences ranging from CPR and first aid to disaster relief and construction.

Trip organizers are raising funds to support additional goals of the Holler to Holler project. Those include purchasing supplies requested by community partners, protective gear for volunteers, and an additional $5,000 to enable eKy Mutual Aid to purchase a trailer for a family whose home washed away.

Donate to the flood relief effort.

Read more about the Holler to Holler initiative.

-By Kelsey Bartlett