If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis, it has been this revelation: Help can be found all around us but especially right beside us. This is, perhaps, the defining American characteristic, on which Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his magisterial Democracy in America, published in 1835 — on a private, local level, Americans join together to solve problems and do not rely on the government to provide all solutions.
Surely, if de Tocqueville were alive today and traveled down the Ohio River to Huntington, he would be pleased to see that his description is still valid nearly 200 years later.
Coalfield Development, a nonprofit founded in 2010 to address some of Appalachia’s most severe problems — drug addiction, joblessness, generational hopelessness — has taken its mission of solving community problems to another level in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ordinarily, Coalfield Development provides jobs, life coaching, skills building, and a sense of dignity for those whose lives haven’t quite turned out the way they hoped. But that no longer suffices.
Without the benefit of foresight and strategic planning, Coalfield has retooled its operations to solve its community’s most pressing crisis: sewing surgical masks using materials normally utilized for its SustainU T-shirt enterprise and designing hospital beds in its woodshop, Saw’s Edge.
Beyond on-the-job training and life coaching, the most important benefit that social enterprises like Coalfield Development gives its customers (really, the most accurate description for its employees) is a sense of purpose that comes with serving one’s fellow man.
One should not be surprised at civil society’s adeptness in confronting a crisis head-on, especially from an organization that serves an area facing as many problems as Central Appalachia. Some crises, like COVID-19 and 2008’s Great Recession, are “loud” and affect millions of people simultaneously, causing massive economic and societal disruptions. Others, like addiction, job loss, familial chaos, and despair are much more personal, much more internal, but are no less of a crisis to the individual — we just cannot always see it or hear it.
Coalfield Development and organizations like it face those types of silent crises every day. They look into the eyes of someone most of us refuse to acknowledge, let alone help, and say, “You’re worth something. Let us show you.”
Some problems require the considerable resources of a large foundation, corporation, or government, but the most important role in solving problems will continue to be played by neighbors helping neighbors.
#GiveTogetherNow and its Give Kindness initiative are tangible examples of how community leaders and philanthropy can facilitate those one-to-one interactions by speeding aid to families most affected by the pandemic. The $500 direct cash assistance provided are based on the principle that people should be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves.
Regardless of the next crisis, whether it is an economic recession, global pandemic, or a friend going down the wrong path, be sure, neighbors and the community are there to help.