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Relevant issues for this story, separated by commas (eg. war, race, gender):
Poverty, Drug Abuse
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
North America
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
Appalachia, Kentucky, USA, Welfare
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This project documents rural poverty in eastern Kentucky through the eyes of the Shell family, who have lived in Whitesburg, Ky for generations. The project puts a face on rural poverty, shows that the poverty line transcends race and location and raises cultural awareness in a region that most Americans have forgotten about.
Carl Kiilsgaard

2009 — student winner

The 2000 census found that nearly 23 percent of families living in Letcher County, Ky. fell below the poverty line. The median household income in most counties is at or below $25,000, with individuals making on average $12,000.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, famously declared a "War on Poverty" in 1964. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke in Whitesburg, Kentucky to examine the outcomes of the first wave of "war on poverty" legislation finding no resolution. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards continued the conversation in 2007 as he toured eastern Kentucky. Despite much attention, little has been done in the past 45 years to bring change to eastern Kentucky.

For more than 3 years I have been documenting rural poverty in eastern Kentucky through the eyes of the Shell family, who have lived in Whitesburg, for generations. The Shell family does their best to hold onto their existing life structure. Cecil Shell, his wife Theresa, their three children, and Cecil's nephew Dusty Shell all live together in a mobile home. The son of a coal miner, Cecil has grown up with and dealt with first hand, the problems that exist in eastern Kentucky.

With the coal industry as the only major source of jobs in the community, Cecil finds its hard to land steady work. Dusty, who is too young to work in the coal mines, helps Cecil make a meager living selling narcotics, doing odd jobs, and exchanging scrap metal at the junkyard. All the family members rely on welfare to make ends meet, like most of the poor families in the region. Despite the negative influences of drugs and a social system built to fail, the family bond is strong, as each member helps each other in any way possible. As each uncertain day unfolds, the one constant is the strength of kin.

I have made the five hour round trip to Whiteburg, Ky., more than a dozen times to visit and document them. This project is important because it puts a face on rural poverty and shows that the poverty line transcends race and location. Since the 1960s, little has changed. The Alexia Foundation grant will allow me to continue to document the families of eastern Kentucky, raising cultural awareness in a region that most Americans have forgotten about.

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Cecil Shell pulls his horse, Blaze, from behind the family's trailer and out into the front yard. Having grown up around horses, Cecil was determined as a young man to one day own a horse and when he finally saved up enough money he bought Blaze as a present for his wife Theresa. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Dusty Shell peers out a window in his home to see who is driving up the hollow. A mistrust of authority that goes back generations causes Derrick to be paranoid about whoever drives up to his house. If the car is unknown, certain measures, such as warning everyone else in the house, are taken before the visitor is engaged in conversation. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Cecil Shell embraces his wife Theresa in their trailer home in Whitesburg, Ky. The stuffed animals seen above the couple were collected by Theresa during her adolescent years and now take a center spot in her kitchen. She says they help to remind her of her childhood. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
With five full time residents and frequent visitors, the Shell house can become quite chaotic during different times of the day. Extended family plays a big roll in the daily lives of the Shell family. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Tammie White's youngest son, Sam, age one, finds a broken cigarette on the ground while helping his mother load dirty clothes into a box. Sam's grandmother and great-grandmother sit and stand behind him, both with cigarette's in their mouth. Tammie, of Whitesburg, Ky., smoked while Sam was in her womb and she believes this is the cause of Sam's respiratory problems. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Holding the wrist of her aunt, Claudia Shell, age 14, lifts herself up the last part of the hill the two climbed. Claudia and her aunt climbed the hill to look for Claudia's cousins who were found playing on the other side. Claudia lives in Whitesburg, Ky., and dreams of becoming a cheerleader for the University of Kentucky. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Bugsy Collins watches television in his nephew Dusty Shell's bedroom. Dusty's shadow is displayed on the wall underneath a modified confederate flag. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Theresa and the children spend many nights sleeping on the couch waiting for Cecil to come home from being out with his friends. The children share a room in the trailer but prefer the comfort of being able to sleep next to their mother. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Seen in the reflection of a pick-up truck, Tammie White, of Whitesburg, Ky., rides up the hollow towards her home. Not having a car to use, Tammie often relies on the generosity of her neighbors and other family members to take her grocery shopping or to the doctor. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation
Cecil Shell smokes a cigarette at dusk outside his families home in Whitesburg, Ky. Cecil lives in the home with his wife and three kids. He works odd jobs to make ends meet. Carl Kiilsgaard/Alexia Foundation