Hands Across the Hills members rally to help flood victims in Kentucky

  • Hands Across the Hills participants Sarah Pirtle, Ben Fink, Gwen Johnson, Pat Fiero and Jim Perkins sing at the October 2019 public forum in Leverett Elementary School’s auditorium as other group members from Kentucky and Leverett watch. CONTRIBUTED/RICHIE DAVIS

  • People work to clear a house from a bridge on July 29 in Letcher County, Ky. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER VIA AP

Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2022 5:47:18 PM

LEVERETT — Residents of rural county in eastern Kentucky who have been involved in a cross-cultural exchange with a group formed in Leverett following the divisive 2016 presidential election are facing devastation from ongoing flooding.

With the people in Letcher County being affected by the natural disaster, local participants who joined the effort to understand how “red state” and “blue state” voters see things differently are stepping up to support relief efforts.

Sarah Pirtle, a longtime Pioneer Valley resident and member of Hands Across the Hills, is working with Gwen Johnson, who is based in Jackhorn, Kentucky, to get people there the needed help.

“What they need most is money for mobile shower units, hand washing units, clothes, and cleaning supplies,” Pirtle said. “They don’t need more literal clothes, they have too many. People need the direct money.”

Johnson was among those who visited Leverett in both 2017 and 2019 as part of the Hands Across the Hills project.

This week, Johnson, who oversees the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery at the Hemphill Community Center, spoke to Robin Young on National Public Radio’s “Here and Now” program about the losses being suffered. Johnson said both food and water are needed, and that it could take years to recover, especially with the infrastructure already in bad shape.

So far, he said, the flooding has proven to be a heart-rending ordeal.

“We’ve got people who are trying to clean up and recover, and then rain came back again last night, and it’s right back in a mess again,” Johnson told Young during the interview Tuesday.

Ben Fink, another member of Hands Across the Hills who lived in Letcher County for several years, wrote to the Leverett group about the situation:

“Lots of neighbors have lost their homes, including one of the Black Sheep, and they may not have running water for weeks or even months. They are cooking, washing dishes, and showering with bottled water in a pan,” he wrote.

“What they need most is money — to get much-needed food and cleaning supplies, to get gift cards so people can buy the clothes and boots they need (they have piles of donated clothes but no time to sort through them), and to get mobile shower units and hand-washing stations,” he wrote.

Fink encouraged people to contribute by credit card at hemphillcenter.org/contribute or by check by sending mail to Hemphill Community Center, 2514 Hwy 317, Jackhorn, KY 41825.

Hands Across the Hills put out information this week about how contributions can also be made to the Cowan Community Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky at https://bit.ly/3BC55bk.

The group was formed as a way to learn more about how former President Donald Trump, who won 14.4% of the 2016 vote in Leverett, could garner 80% of the vote in Letcher County.

In 2018, Leverett’s participants went to Kentucky for three days of discussions, presentations and tours of Letcher County. That followed a visit to this area by 11 Kentucky residents, several of whom are affiliated with a network that has been trying rebuild that region’s largely coal-dependent economy.


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