Despite Poverty and the Opioid Epidemic, These West Virginia Students Persevere

“It’s a group effort. Through [First Book’s] program, [we’ve] been able to help children in our county. It’s taken a village to help our children have a book in their hands.” – Rhonda Kersey

Lincoln County is the number one county in West Virginia in which babies are born addicted to opioids. It’s also one of the poorest counties in the country. Kids who grow up there face grueling obstacles.

“Many of our students live in poverty,” says Rhonda Kersey, director of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers in Lincoln.

In fact, 90% of the students she serves do not have access to books at home.

“I had one teacher at the beginning of this year who said she wanted to give her students books for Christmas,” Kersey says. “So we went through and we got the books, and she gave them out. And one little girl looked at her and said, ‘This is the first book I’ve ever gotten.’ And when she came back and told me that, it broke my heart.”

The odds are stacked against them, yet these children remain resilient.

They have sliced through the background of poverty and drug epidemics to get full-ride scholarships to college and compete in the world championship with their robotics teams. And when their eight-year-old classmate died at a soccer game because the site did not have an automated external defibrillator (AED) to jumpstart his heart, they took action and helped create a campaign to make sure every youth sporting event has an AED.

Their resilience, Kersey believes, is largely due to the books they receive from First Book and Kersey’s program.

“It’s important to make sure that our kids have what is needed to help them advance in life,” she says, “and it all starts with reading a book. Without that book, we’ve done those kids a huge disservice.”

Moreover, she argues that new books and other supplies are key to making a great start for the new year.

“They can take that sense of ownership and pride, and it walks with them throughout school. It helps them start off on the right foot.”

So far, with the help of First Book and grants that she has received, Kersey has given away over a thousand books to her community. But that’s still not enough.

Overall, there are 3,451 students in the area, and many of them are not able to receive the benefits of Kersey’s program. In fact, according to The National Center for Children in Poverty, the percentage of children from low-income households is at a whopping 44 percent.

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