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Kentucky by Heart: In a divisive world, optimism for Kentucky’s future remains, because of its people

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I recently was interviewed for a podcast by Bill Goodman, CEO of the Kentucky Humanities Council, about my book series, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes. I considered it an honor to be asked to share, both as an opportunity to contribute to KHC, an organization that seeks to highlight the best in our citizens’ values, and also for the interest Bill demonstrated in my work. I’ve always admired Bill’s contributions to my state.

Bill and I had a free and easy conversation, and I shared background on the series and particularly stories from the fifth volume, my newest. Toward the end of the interview, he asked me, with the background experiences I’ve had traveling the state since KEH was launched in 2008, if I felt optimistic about our state’s future.

I replied, essentially, that I am quite optimistic about Kentucky, despite its serious problems. That’s because of the kind of good people I’ve met who are overcomers and who continually sacrifice for the betterment of their communities. Might I characterize these people as individuals who contribute to the “soul” of Kentucky? Yes, and there are enough of ‘em to make us better. People acting nobly can wield amazing power for good.

Now, thinking back to the interview, I wish I’d added something to the answer to Bill’s question. It’s this. I have little confidence that politics encourages optimism.

Here are some reasons. Looking at public political discourse, I see primarily an emphasis to win points and arguments rather than to seek and find truth. It appears, at times, that we, as individuals, hope to justify our existence by proving we are right about political issues. Often that notion is so strong that it creates vitriol with demeaning personal attacks, and the discussion ends with hard feelings and further entrenchment to our “side.” In effect, we move away from solving problems. Citizens do this, along with grandstanding politicians playing to their citizenry. It divides us.

Money is too important in influencing political decisions; arguably, it’s, at times, legalized bribery. And, in state politics with the glare of mics and cameras, it doesn’t seem “cool” to compromise on issues to make even a modicum of progress. Meeting halfway, in the thinking of many in the realm, would be showing weakness and vulnerability.

Via politics, we get a few good things accomplished, but not nearly enough. Perhaps we kick our problems down the road by focusing too much on this battleground. Sad it seems to be that way.

So… why am I still optimistic for the state of Kentucky? Well, I have some anecdotal evidence, and I think it is compelling.

It’s because of people of goodwill, working in their communities and beyond. Let me give you a few examples. They’re scattered all over the Bluegrass.

Steve Flairty with Dale Hatton (Photo provided)

Dale Hatton, of Winchester, uses his Facebook postings to help those who are having hard times. He finds out people’s needs, then makes specific requests online, in conversational terms, for things like beds, appliances, and other items and coordinates the logistics of delivery. He does it for no fees, but he admittedly receives deep personal satisfaction. His wife, Terah Hatton, assists him and provides encouragement — and she never knows what’s going to appear in the family car. She figures that’s OK.

A retired building contractor left a “three-wheel offering” to 156 young people with physical disabilities before his death a few years back. Adair County resident Kendall Harvey, skillful in building things with his hands, began his gift project of breaking down bicycles and transforming them into ones with three wheels after meeting an 11-year-old boy with Down syndrome who wanted to ride a bike, but needed an adaptation to do so.

A ten-year-old from Shelbyville, Jessica Collins, started an organization called A Place to Sleep after finding out there were many children in her community not having a comfortable bed to sleep on at night. Now a student at Western Kentucky University, Jessica’s organization has given new or almost new beds to about 1800 individuals.

Phyllis Abbott (Photo provided)

A Johnson County man collected, over the years, more than $36,000 worth of aluminum cans for recycling off the roadside and at parking lots. Charles Whitaker, of a tiny community called River, used all the money he raised to donate to a local Christian school to provide scholarships.

Phyllis Abbott is directing Lady Veterans Connect, a program to bring housing and services to women coming out of the U.S. military who suffer from military sexual trauma (MST). Her organization is still in the early stages, with a small footprint in Lexington. It has bought the former elementary school building in Trapp, in Clark County, and is, as it becomes financially feasible, hopeful to open later for services. Phyllis has a servant’s heart and is particularly passionate about America’s veterans. Her example is inspiring scores of individuals to help.

John Rosenberg gave up a more lucrative law career to direct the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalReD), which according to its web site, “is a private, non-profit law firm. . .(offering) free civil legal help to eligible low-income people in 37 counties (in). . .in eastern and south-central Kentucky.” In his late eighties, he remains active in such justice endeavors.

An African-American woman prohibited from attending the University of Louisville because of the Day Law (established in Kentucky in 1904), ironically later became a great benefactor to the university. A beautiful campus housing building, built in 2000, was named “Bettie Johnson Hall,” in her honor.

John Rosenberg (Photo Provided)

A DuPont Manual High schooler in Louisville, Andrew Dunn, founded Random Acts of Kindness Louisville. His organization has worked in collaboration with thousands of people in the city to spread love through doing good deeds. He is a young and charismatic leader who hopes, eventually, to “go international” with the program.

Getting back to Bill’s question about my optimism, it’s certainly not because I expect our politicians—though some honestly try–to make our futures brighter. They often become distractions from such. I do believe, however, that Kentucky’s soul is much closer to the heroic ones I’ve mentioned above, and I could share many more examples if space and time permitted.

It’s my solemn hope that our overcomers and self-sacrificing warriors for good will someday permeate our political structure (without becoming tainted) and Kentuckians will move forward together. At this time, politics isn’t the answer; perhaps that will change.

That’s what I wish I’d emphasized to Bill in the interview.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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