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How Appalachia's children highlight the region's best attributes

Salena Zito on

MOUNTAIN CITY, Georgia -- Just off U.S. Highway 23, along the spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, T.J. Smith spends his days continuing the tradition of the iconic Foxfire Fund: an enterprise driven by young people whose respect for the land and culture, and understanding of the importance of preserving that culture's stories, has persevered for more than 50 years.

If you grew up in Appalachia, you likely owned a set of the Foxfire books or had the Foxfire magazine in your home, giving you an opportunity to see your very heritage in those pages.

They carried the stories of the America that stretches 1,500 miles diagonally along the Appalachian Mountains, from southern New York through great big swaths of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, parts of both Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.

If you didn't grow up in Appalachia, you likely have a very skewed view of the people and their lifestyle, associating them with being mostly white, mostly uneducated, mostly backward and mostly nostalgic for a different time.

You would be wrong.

That is why Foxfire is so important.

 

"Foxfire began as a school project started in a classroom in 1966 at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School," explained Smith, president and executive director of the nonprofit. "The kids didn't really have an interest in Shakespeare and Ethan Frome and whatever else they were being asked to read. So, in a response, the teacher just said: 'OK, I give up. What do you want to do? What are you interested in? You don't want to do this. You don't want to do that. What will you do?'"

The children's answer?

"They were interested in their community, themselves, their families, their friends and their neighbors," Smith said. "So, they were told, 'Go out and talk to people in your community about what's important to them about their lives or about their experiences, and see what you find.'"

It turns out that when they came back to class to write about what they found, the essays were really interesting, so interesting that they decided to find a way to put them in the public space. They created a magazine and found a way to pay for the printing by selling advertising.

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