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May 14, 2014

THOMAS: Finding treasure in Silver Hills

— Treasure is all around us. A precious source can be found in the aptly named Silver Hills.

Anne Caudill makes a mean blueberry muffin. She even tops them with almond slivers. She serves them with a pot of coffee and dainty china that made a frayed journalist — disposable Circle K is more his speed — feel downright dignified.

This was not a show. Caudill, now 90, entertained dignitaries from around the globe after the release of her late husband Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area” in 1963.

A story by Homer Bigart on the front page of the New York Times later that year screamed “The mountains have become a vast ghetto of unemployables.” Anne and Harry’s life were forever changed, always linked to “Night’s” pulling back the curtains on the misery of Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky.

A visit with President Lyndon Johnson and national thought leaders followed. And journalists, who Anne counts among some of the most interesting people she’s met in 50 years of entertaining guests.

“I don’t have stock stories,” she said, “they’re just memories.”

Rich memories. Sure beats Circle K.

Like treasure, its opposite — despair — also is all around us. You don’t have to travel to Appalachia to find it.

The number of children under the age of 18 living in poverty in Clark County grew from 15 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2012, according to Kids Count in Indiana, a profile of child well-being produced by the Indiana Youth Institute and released in 2013. In Floyd, the number increased from 16 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2012. The state average is 22 percent.

That’s nothing like Appalachia, but it’s equally alarming. And sad.

“There’s no reason someone should not have a warm place to sleep in a country as rich as ours,” Caudill said, showing a fire that still burns after all these years. “Same thing with hunger, in a country as rich as ours.”

The number of public school students receiving free lunches in Clark County increased from 5,274 in 2009 to 7,026 in 2013, from 32 percent to 42 percent, according to Kids Count. The number in Floyd grew from 3,735 to 4,432 over the same time period, from 30 percent to 38 percent. During the school year 2010, 37 percent of Indiana public school students received lunches at no charge.

Thirty-seven percent.

With growling bellies come distracted minds. One of the Youth Institute’s main pushes over the last several years has been mentoring. There is a huge need for mentors in Southern Indiana. Kids in the New Albany-Floyd County School Corp. are on waiting lists, for example.

As a mentor to a third-grader at Slate Run Elementary School, I can tell you the experience is humbling and rewarding all the same. Did you know the little black specks at either end of a banana are actually tiny spiders? The things kids say.

Every morning, the school’s cafeteria is packed with students receiving free breakfast. Many live in unsteady households. Some aren’t sure at which relative’s house they’ll lay their head tonight to sleep.

They are tired. They are hungry. They are ours.

Now is the time to make a difference in a child’s life. Caudill has a saying tacked to her refrigerator: “Don’t procrastinate. Do nothing now.”

Need some pushing? Twenty percent of children were food insecure in Clark County in 2011, the latest statistics available, according to Kids Count. In Floyd, that number is 19 percent.

How about giving them one less thing to worry about by being a friend?

Caudill was a witness to activism on a grand scale most of her life. Treat her advice like treasure. Not everyone warrants the front page of the New York Times.

“Just do the little things,” she said, “and if something bigger comes along, then take it.”

Worth its weight in gold.

To learn more about being a mentor with the NA-FC School Corp., contact Sharon Jones at 812-542-2111 or via email at sjones@nafcs.k12.in.us. For more information about Kids Count, and to explore the data, visit datacenter.kidscount.org.

— Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter @ScoopThomas

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