WESTMONT – Joe Wagner placed a stack of photos right in the middle of his kitchen table inside his Westmont home. Flipping through them, he and his wife, Pam, begin to rattle off memories from the mission trips they took together to McCreary County in Kentucky.
Younger versions of Joe and Pam are featured in candid shots with tools in hand. They’re usually standing next to a skeleton of a house, climbing a ladder, putting up drywall or hauling something. Every now and then, pictures of Pam and her smile, alongside a new friend, stand out in the pile.
“It’s about a nine and a half hour drive down there,” Pam said of traveling to McCreary, which is located at the southeastern edge of Kentucky. “It’s a beautiful area.”
McCreary County boasts scenic views and picturesque landscape that stretches beyond the eye can see. It’s home to the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
City data suggests a different picture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2013 to 2017, the median household income in McCreary County was $19,264, and about 34 percent of the population was living below the poverty line. Other media reports have deemed McCreary as one of the poorest counties in the nation.
For the past 19 years, Joe and Pam, along with their team of volunteers from the West Hills Community Church in Westmont, travel to McCreary County twice a year. They spend their summers building a home for select families and buying groceries, personal care items and other necessities for the rest. During the winter, they host Christmas gift collections and deliver them personally to the children.
Pam currently is raising money so she, Joe and their volunteers can continue their work in Kentucky. Her goal is to raise $2,000, and monetary donations can be made via Facebook. Search “Appalachia Family Ministry of West Hills Community Church.” Those interested in volunteer opportunities can call the church and ask for Pam.
“Work down there is extremely hard to get,” Joe said, noting that because most of the coal mines in the area closed, many were displaced and forced to look outside the county for work. “You need insurance, a driver’s license and [to] drive hours away to get a job.”
Pam added two big factors come into play for McCreary County.
“The majority of the county is on government assistance, and the majority of the county is also owned by the federal government ... so there’s no money coming in from taxes or things like that to help the area.”
Throughout the years, Joe and Pam have witnessed McCreary County’s socioeconomic stagnation, which drives their annual mission trips. But their trips also have become a tradition, a reunion of sorts with friends, families and other ministries.
“We’ve gone down so many years now,” Pam said, reflecting on the past summers and winters. “We’ve met a lot of people.”