Josh Sparks taught in the 2008 New Mexico corps.
I am Appalachian, born and raised. More particularly, I am central Appalachian- I grew up in Jackson, KY, the seat of Breathitt County, which is located in the foothills of the Central Appalachian Mountains. Growing up, I spent my summers hiking in the lush green hills behind my house, spending time with my grandparents and learning about their generation (and mainly the things I take for granted), and at the city pool where my friends and I did our best to annoy the lifeguards every day (later, I would become one; karma’s definitely not fun). During the school year, I surrounded myself with friends who were dedicated to their studies and their futures. We spent hours in tutoring studying for pre-calculus and re-writing our drafts for English class. And we spent many evenings drafting and practicing our legislative proposals for our state’s Youth Assembly (yeah, I was a dork). All in all, I loved my small town Appalachian life.
That’s why it might be surprising that throughout my life, I was pushed to leave my community to seek out a “bigger and better” life full of opportunities upon graduation. Leaving and going to college was the only option my parents would entertain. My teachers, who had the highest expectations for me, also pushed me to leave for college and think seriously before returning. And I wasn’t alone.
Between 2000-2010, my county lost 25% of its school-aged population and 14.7% of its overall population. This was the steepest population decline in the state, with the other four counties with the highest population declines also in the Central Appalachian Mountains. Young people are leaving the area and, for the most part, not returning.
Our communities in Appalachia are dying. Our resources to rejuvenate our infrastructure are dwindling. My county, for example, can’t receive funding for a new library to replace the old one that is struggling to meet the needs of 21st Century learners. The friends I graduated with are now living in Providence, Las Vegas, in Beirut getting a Master’s degree, and in many other cities across the globe. When I ask them if they’re ever coming back home, the answer is perpetually, “No.”
Now, I’m in a unique situation. I returned to Eastern Kentucky to help coach and develop teachers in Central Appalachia. When I came back, my mom’s response was still, “Why? Are you sure? There’s nothing here.” And I replied with, “If I don’t, who will?” I moved back and I don’t regret it. I am fortunate to work with passionate teachers who want the best for their students and this region. I see my work as empowering students and communities to brighten the region’s future so that Appalachian youth don’t have to leave home for a better life. I firmly believe that it is up to young Appalachians to set a new vision and plot a new course for the region. It might not be easy but it is necessary.
This region is full of beauty and untapped potential. I challenge my friends to consider coming back to create the opportunities they are taking advantage of in other places so that the place that gave us so much growing up won’t die. I challenge them to create the life they want in Appalachia so future generations will be able to experience its beauty. We, as a community, must create opportunities for young people and our broader community to thrive and prosper. The alternative is unthinkable.
Josh grew up in Jackson, a rural eastern Kentucky community. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, obtaining a degree in Biology and Business Administration from Berea College. He taught science in New Mexico before joining TFA staff as an Manager of Teacher Leadership Development in the Appalachia region. He is currently pursuing his principalship license at the University of Kentucky. He loves outdoor adventure activities so if it's outdoors and a little risky, he's usually down!