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By Thomas F. O'Neill

A Community That Cares

I moved back to my hometown, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, five years ago after being away for nineteen years. The transition of moving back was difficult for me because the town I remember from my youth is quite different from the town I am living in today.

My hometown is in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region. When the coal industry was booming Shenandoah’s population was approximately thirty-thousand. The mines however are no longer open; they closed in the early nineteen-fifties. The closing of the mines caused the population in Shenandoah and the coal region as a whole to go on the decline. Today, there are approximately five-thousand people living in my hometown. The average income is somewhere around seventeen-thousand per year and the majority of the people are on public assistance. The town’s poverty has also resulted in higher crimes and drug use among the youth.

Forty-four percent of our town’s population is made up of senior citizens. The seniors are very vocal and negative about the towns decline as well. However, I enjoy listening to their stories of what the town was like before I was born when various Department stores lined the main street. I was very shocked and saddened over the amount of vacant lots and vacant buildings in my town.

What bothers me the most is that the majority of our town’s teenagers congregate on the main street out of boredom. Most if not all of our town’s youth will move out of the coal region once they graduate high school or college. They will move to where there are high paying jobs and better employment opportunities. This is the main reason why the outward migration is greater than the people moving into our region.

I was contemplating on moving away from the area once again but I decided to stay to cultivate ways of teaching the history of our town to the younger generation. Some of the friendships I have made over the last five years also helped me become more involved in my community.

I have always been intrigued by our town’s history. That was mostly passed down to me orally by some of the miner's widows and my grandparents. They were proud to live in the coal region because of its rich ethnic diversity and heritage.

I was very bitter about the change I saw in Shenandoah because I felt people were losing touch with our town’s past. I tried my best however to accentuate what is positive in our community rather than dwelling solely on the negative.

It wasn’t until a tragic event occurred on August 4, 2006 that my perception of the region changed in a very dramatic way. On that date a fifteen year old boy (Aaron K______) was severely injured in an auto accident. His girlfriend who was driving the vehicle lost control of her car after a blowout of one of the tires. The car rolled over an embankment and Aaron K______ who was a passenger in the car was thrown from the vehicle. He suffered a severe head injury. While he laid in a comma, I witnessed the entire community reach out to his family.

That auto accident was truly tragic it changed not only Aaron’s life but his family and friends lives as well. His family told me that he has a long road of recovery ahead of him. The difficult road that Aaron is on is being made a bit easier though by the outpour of love and affection from his family, friends, and the entire community.

The coal region is known for being economically depressed from lack of jobs and resources but the community’s concern for Aaron only goes to show that the coal region is still rich with heart and soul.

The entire community has come together and organized fundraisers for Aaron's family. There were softball tournaments - twenty-five teams played each other which raised a lot of money for Aaron. There were dances organized by the high school students. Concerts were held and t-shirts with - “Aaron bringing a community together” - were sold. Along with various other events that were organized over the last six months.

These fundraising events did much more than raise funds for Aaron they brought our entire community together out of compassion for one of our own.

We have a tendency to judge ones generosity in terms of dollars and there is no doubt that a lot of money has been raised to help Aaron's family. Those monetary donations are truly needed to aid Aaron with his recovery. What will never be forgotten though in the hearts and minds of our community are the small acts of kindness, because such has a profound effect on the giver and the receiver, but most of all on our entire community.

Most people think that little acts of generosity are insignificant but every little kind act resonates through our community. When we reach out to enhance the life and wellbeing of a person in need, we in turn enhance our own lives.

Aaron has shown everyone that he has a loving family and a lot of friends who truly care for him. It was their collaboration of love that brought the entire community together in a way that I have never seen before which is truly heartwarming. It makes one proud to live in a community that cares.

Our community with its outpour of love and affection has shown Aaron and his family that you can measure the true worth of a person's character not by what they amassed over the years but by what they give to others. Our greatest gifts in the coal region are not measured monetarily because they come from the heart. Those heartfelt acts of generosity for Aaron resonate through our community like enlightening words of love which is far more precious than monetary gifts.

The truest heroes in our community are the ones who reach out to those of the least influence - the ones who do not have the means to return the favor. The coal region has a lot of heroes and they are the ones that have the profoundest effect on our community and it is through their kindness and love that they will always be remembered.

With love,
Thomas F. O’Neill

Click on author's byline for bio.
(800) 272-6464
Other articles and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.
Link: eill


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