Children of the Mountains Struggle to Survive

Diane Sawyer reports on four children growing up in central Appalachia.

ByABC News
February 10, 2009, 12:32 PM

Feb. 13, 2009 — -- The oldest mountains in America are rich in natural beauty with their raging creeks, steep hollows and old pines. They are also one of the poorest, most disadvantaged regions in America.


Central Appalachia has up to three times the national poverty rate, an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, the shortest life span in the nation, toothlessness, cancer and chronic depression. But everywhere in these hills, there are also young fighters filled with courage and hope.

Settled by tough pioneers who clawed their way over the Appalachian Mountains to expand America's borders, the region has produced some of the fiercest military fighters the country has seen. Like their ancestors before them, the children of the mountains are born fighters, and for two years, ABC News has documented the unique challenges some of these rural children face as they chase after their dreams.

Courtney, 12, hopes for a home for her and her family.

"We're not like other people, we can't afford food after food after food," she said.

Shawn Grim, 18, tries to fight his way out of his dysfunctional family in the mountains by becoming the high school football star of Appalachia, while sleeping in a truck.

Jeremy, 18, makes a decision to accept a life down inside the mines, and Erica, 11, is forced to grow up too quickly, trying over and over again to save her mother's life.

For generations, poets and musicians like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dwight Yoakum have been inspired by the majestic beauty of the land that spreads across 13 states and has towns named "Lovely," "Beauty" and "Kingdom Come."

"I think the mountains are like your mother's arms around you. They're holding you in one place," said Whitesburg, Ky., resident Nell Fields.

Forty-one years ago, Robert F. Kennedy traveled to eastern Kentucky to bring attention to a part of the country that desperately needed help.

At that time, almost 60 percent of families in Appalachian Kentucky fell below the poverty level. The average per capita income for the region was only $841, more than a third lower than the national average.

Today, there have been improvements in the region and many communities are flourishing. Highways now link the mountain towns to cities in the valley, and reduce what used to be day-long trips to a matter of hours. One-room schoolhouses have been replaced by fully-equipped buildings, all of which has helped pull up national achievment rankings. But roughly 40 percent of Appalachia's population in the hills and hollows remains stuck in poverty, still searching for the road to success.