A vitally important event to struggling families in Southwest Virginia will take place next month. The Mountain Empire Older Citizens’ 45th annual walkathon is Sunday, Aug. 29, starting at 2 p.m. at Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap.
There are a lot of fundraising events like this throughout the region, but this one stands out because of who and how it helps. All proceeds go to the organization’s fuel fund, which assists older residents with winter heating bills and costs across its service region of Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton.
Running out of fuel in the middle of winter isn’t just an inconvenience. For older folks it’s life-threatening. Last winter, the fund came to the rescue of nearly 1,000 older families with more than $203,000 in heating emergencies.
More families than that are facing a hard winter this year. According to a report last December commissioned by the United Way of Southwest Virginia, 51% of households in Southwest Virginia either live in poverty or are ALICE, an acronym that stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained and Employed. United Way of Southwest Virginia President Travis Staton said households that fall into the ALICE threshold cannot afford basic necessities or save for the future.
“These households contribute to Southwest Virginia’s economy by earning, spending, paying taxes, yet they struggle to make ends meet,” Staton said. “Even though the cost of living in our region is much lower than the rest of the state, it is oftentimes higher than most residents earn.”
Worse, the ALICE and poverty rates among households in nearly every county in the southwest region is trending upward. The region is one of the most economically distressed in Virginia.
“Over the past decade, there’s been a significant change in the Southwest Virginia economy, especially in its industrial makeup and the large number of households out of the labor force,” Staton said.
The mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction industry has realized a 44% decrease over the last decade. Another large decrease came to the furniture industry and its subsectors, which employed nearly 2,500 people in 2009. In 2018, it employed less than 300. The region is also continuing to see a decrease in its population, down 3% overall from 2010 to 2018.
The fund assists older residents with winter heating bills and costs across MEOC’s service region. While it met its goals last fall with a virtual fundraiser, MEOC Executive Director Michael Wampler said he looks forward to the in-person walkathon.
“We are so thankful to the community for making last year’s virtual event a success but can’t wait to see everyone in person again this year,” said Wampler.
Participation can include being a pledge-sponsored walker or making donations. Those wishing to walk in the event can contact MEOC at (276) 523-4202 to request a pledge form and begin collecting pledges. Donations can be made online at: https://tinyurl.com/jjjmhswd or checks can be mailed to MEOC, P.O. Box 888, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. For more information call MEOC at (276) 523-4202.
This year’s goal is $165,000. Can you help?