Reality TV's 'hick hunt' and the Appalachian truth

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CBS is scouring my Kentucky county for "The Real Beverly Hillbillies." Evidently, CBS's CEO Les Moonves thinks families who have struggled with poverty for generations and overcome obstacles for survival that would make most urban Americans cringe is good comedy. I am saddened by his assumption that anyone would think this is entertainment.

In the new world of reality TV, I guess you could call my life "The Real Green Acres." About 12 years ago, I moved from Palm Beach County, Fla. to Perry County, Ky. Unlike so many people before me, I didn't move here to save Appalachia. I moved here so Appalachia could save me. I came here to find a community of hard-working folks who cared not only about themselves, but also about on another.

I came here to live in a place where a modest wage will support a modest lifestyle. I came here so my children could go to a school where everybody knows everybody and the principal calls you at home when they aren't there. I came here to breathe clean air. I came looking for my own personal Camelot and I found it.

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Appalachia, just like most of rural America, has all of the same maladies you find in the city. There is homelessness, which occasionally appears similar to that in urban areas - people sleeping on the street, under the bridge, in the car. But rural homelessness here is more often hidden, experienced by families living in severely substandard housing; families doubled and tripled up so no one is left on their own to freeze.

There is hunger, sometimes experienced by children from homes with no food or potable water. But mostly hunger is hidden, experienced by families whose wages are so low that an inordinate number of them survive on food stamps, gardening, and sharing. And there is drug abuse in Appalachia. Yes, some people sell meth or crack on Main Street, but more often, people overuse prescription drugs to combat depression and boredom.

In recent years, the problems of rural America - particularly Appalachia - have reached the radar screen for state and federal initiatives. These programs have recognized our problems and engaged us in finding solutions.

Now, just as quickly as rural America got the attention it deserved, the much-needed initiatives are threatened by state and federal budget cuts. Just when we were gaining our momentum to truly be a part of a solution to poverty - not just for ourselves, but by showing our entire nation what can happen with a true sense of community - we must waste precious time fighting backward media moguls who have obviously spent too much time watching TV.

The "Beverly Hillbillies" are fiction. What is real is the meaningful life and work that rural people who still live in a community with one another have. What is real is the responsibility we feel in Appalachia to take care of our own. What is real is the way we rally around a problem and work toward a solution together. What is real are the high moral standards of hard working rural Americans.

We need good jobs and decent housing, just as the folks in the big cities do. As communities, we're working hard toward creative solutions to problems we have. People like Mr. Moonves need to understand that to build a strong nation, we have to build strong communities. That means letting yourself be touched by someone else's needs, not launching a "hick hunt" to take jabs at a mythical culture. Rural America is still holding on to one thing our urban counterparts lost long ago, that sense of community. Perhaps CBS should do a special about that.

Gerry Roll is executive director of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries. She is a recipient of the Ford Foundation's 2002 Leadership for a Changing World award.

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