Essential Appalachia

Most days since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Alexis Batausa has laced up his running shoes and headed for the hills. If the fear and isolation took a toll on his mind and spirit, he was determined not to let it do the same to his body.

In April, Batausa lost his job as director of active living at the local health and wellness center in Mingo County, West Virginia. Batausa, 37, went from organizing the region’s largest marathon, hosting chair yoga at the mall across the river in Kentucky and helping kids learn about exercise to being out of work altogether by the third week of March, around the time West Virginia announced its first positive COVID case and governor declared a state of emergency.

Valerie Akers, co-owner of the Parkview Pharmacy is seen through a plexiglass window as Mary Slone lifts her disposable camera to her face. “While I cannot remember the exact reason for me being there, I do recall the surrealness of visiting the pharmacy I patronized but doing so via drive-through. Even with plexi glass between us, we were both wearing masks. It truly was a moment out of the science fiction stories that I have long read,” Slone recalled. (Photo by Mary Slone/GroundTruth)

In May his employer hired him back for one of the county’s most urgent needs: Screening people who thought they might have the virus putting him on the front lines of the pandemic that had turned his home into one of West Virginia’s coronavirus hot spots.

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In the early days of the pandemic, Alexis Batausa of Mingo County, West Virginia, got laid off from his job coordinating healthy living programs for the local health clinic. He was eventually rehired to screen people who thought they might have COVID-19. Nature was a refuge, as it has been since he started running and hiking years ago. “Throughout 2020, all I was — I was outside all the time. Cross my fingers, I never did get the virus. I mean, I probably did encounter a lot of people that had the virus.” (Photo by Alexis Batausa/ GroundTruth)

An ultramarathoner, his route is painted in green as he runs up and down the leafy hills that envelope Mingo County. Since the pandemic started, he has logged at least 4,000 miles, marking the end of nearly every run with a selfie his Facebook followers have come to expect. The retreat outside, he said, “has kept me sane and hopeful.”

That is what’s essential to him.

The global pandemic has forever shifted our lives, forcing Appalachians, many of whom reside in rural spaces, to reckon with what is essential.

For some, it’s a particular feeling of security or a connection to their faith. For others, it’s more practical, like Internet access or the safety net that comes from the generational practice of canning produce. A family sharing that bounty with their neighbors.

In Spring 2020, folks from various backgrounds across central Appalachia used disposable cameras, a call-in hotline, and children’s drawings to articulate these experiences and what remains essential to them during this period of global uncertainty.

For many, daily life was condensed into two dimensions. A dinner date became a Zoom meeting, the classroom became an online portal, important milestones unfolded on social media platforms. The tangibility of a camera, the boundless possibilities of pencil and paper, and the creation of oral histories offered our collaborators a sense of permanence and connection as all other forms of communication became fleeting. The images speak to a shared truth and the broadening definitions of community that will stay with us for decades to come.

Jenny Snyder, 58, Fairmont, West Virginia 

Since the pandemic started, Jenny Snyder has been a full-time caretaker.

She and her husband, Roy, also 58, are raising four kids they fostered then adopted, all born to a mother who had substance use disorder. Roy lost his job as a phlebotomist during the pandemic, but was rehired by his company to do data-entry work, allowing his wife to stay home with the kids, ages 9 to 16. For months Jenny planned nearly every meal, kept up the house, supported a daughter through puberty during the pandemic, and helped with homework across all subject areas.

Jenny Snyder spent much of the pandemic helping her four kids with schoolwork, which they attended remotely online from their home in Fairmont, West Virginia. Here, her daughters Maddy, 11, and Jarin, 9 are looking over an assignment at the kitchen table. “I sent my kids to school to learn to build relationships with teachers and build relationships with their friends,” Jenny said. “You almost must feel like now you’re in this whole different world. And it is sad.” (Photo by Jenny Snyder/GroundTruth)

“At first it was very frustrating, I felt like I was gonna pull my hair out. There were times I cried. I’m just being honest. It was very hard,” she said.

In March, the Snyders’ children started going back to school four days a week after months of remote learning.

The day all four kids got back on the school bus for the first time since the pandemic started, the couple looked at each other.

The Snyder family of Fairmont, West Virginia, welcomed two kittens into the family during the pandemic when a family friend’s cat had a litter during the pandemic. Here, Jenny’s oldest son, Aden, holds Mocha.  (Photo by Jenny Snyder/GroundTruth)

“What do you want to do today?” she said Roy asked her.

“I said, ‘Let’s get in the car and go’ because I’d been stuck in the house. You couldn’t go anywhere, you couldn’t do anything,” she said.

Her oldest child, Aden, spent the early months of social distancing cutting grass and doing home repair projects for relatives, while the younger kids spent the summer swimming with neighbors and playing with the latest additions to their family: two new kittens. The kids started playing soccer this year and wear masks on the field.

In early 2021, Roy had to have hip replacement surgery, and Jenny has been helping him recover at home.  Because of physical distance requirements, the Snyders, devout Christians, have struggled to stay connected to family and church friends over the past year. They went back to church for a few months but ultimately decided to worship at home in the weeks before the surgery.

For her, the one-on-one time with her kids has been essential. “Family has always been precious,” said Jenny, who lost her father, mother, and sister all within 19 months back in 2012-13.

To pass the time during the pandemic, the Snyder family played board games, especially Jenny’s husband Roy and her daughter, 9-year-old, Jarin, pictured here. “She is definitely cutthroat when it comes to playing games,” Roy said, laughing. (Photo by Jenny Snyder/GroundTruth)

“I enjoy being the mommy that takes them everywhere and being involved with their lives.” But, she added, “You wonder when it’s all gonna be over and you get back to normal.”

But just as that started to happen, Jenny got a call in mid-March 2021 that one of her kids had a direct COVID exposure and would have to start a weeklong quarantine.

The family hopes to plan a beach vacation later this year – after getting vaccinated.

Tina Russell, 50, Glenwood, West Virginia 

The coronavirus pandemic presented a unique challenge for Russell, who ran last year for a seat in the West Virginia Legislature. A Desert Storm veteran and longtime social worker, Tina went from door-knocking — especially critical during elections in a rural area — to hosting online functions to get the word out.

“I’m an extrovert so not having physical contact with people has been very difficult for me. Maintaining connections with others through Zoom and social media has been essential,” she said.

Tina Russell of Mercer County, West Virginia, was busy running for a seat in the West Virginia Legislature when the pandemic hit, and she turned to social media and Zoom to campaign at home. But she and her husband still liked to get out of the house and enjoy nature. Here she’s photographed taking a break while out at the local park. (Photo by Tina Russell/GropundTruth)

One of the first Black women to win a Democratic primary in Mercer County, West Virginia, Russell faced three Republican challengers in the fall. (A three-delegate district, the top three vote-getters won seats.) She lost the race, receiving 7,512 votes. Collectively, the three Republicans – an incumbent Joe Ellington, Doug Smith and Marty Gearheart – earned over 37,000.

She acknowledged it was a longshot. But Tina said she plans to run again.

On a hot summer day, the Princeton City Pool in Mercer County, West Virginia, is usually crowded with kids and families. Like cities and towns across the country, Princeton kept the popular destination closed all last summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. Officials released a statement announcing the closure: “While this is disappointing during the summer time months, we feel it is a necessary precaution that needs to be and will be taken for the safety of our citizens.” (Photo by Tina Russell/GroundTruth)

Beyond her campaign, Tina works for an agency that helps recruit foster families in West Virginia. Her work, which involves helping people become foster parents and helping kids get adopted, went online at first. But her agency also requires social workers to visit the homes of families they work with twice a month.

“I can do quite a bit of work remotely, but there isn’t a week that goes by [that] I’m not in somebody’s house,” she said.

With her disposable camera Tina photographed aspects of her campaign and, poignantly, a graveyard near her home.

“It’s a sobering reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t get a handle on this,” she said. “That’s the cost if we don’t take this seriously.”

Tina Russell says she felt compelled to snap a photo of this cemetary near her home in Mercer County, West Virginia, calling the scene “a sobering reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t get a handle on this. … I think every once in a while we need to just check out a cemetery and remember that by the grace of God go. I wonder if we don’t take this seriously. We’ll be right there with them.” As of February 2021, about half the county’s 100 coronavirus-related deaths were residents of county nursing homes, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. (Photo by Tina Russell/GroundTruth)

Lizzie Jones, 21, Richmond, Kentucky 

As cases were first announced in the western United States, Lizzie Jones was finishing her associates degree at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.

By mid-March, all of her courses were moved online. Simultaneously, Jones was working at the local Walgreens. For many Americans who are low-income or without health insurance, the corner pharmacy is one of the first stops for healthcare. Early on, Lizzie was concerned about following proper safety protocols to keep herself and others safe. Working in that environment, amid a global pandemic, brought about feelings of unease.

Lizzie Jones takes a self portrait in uniform during a short break from work at the local Walgreens in Martin, Floyd County, Kentucky. Her work didn’t have a break room and she had to socially distance as much as possible. Looking back she feels proud that she was among those that took the virus seriously, stayed home often and wore a mask. Still, it was frustrating for her to see so many, including family members, refuse to take the proper precautions. “They wait to believe in it until it happens to them specifically and then it’s too late.” (Photo by Lizzie Jones/GroundTruth)

“Seeing family and friends at my work environment was the biggest change during COVID-19 for me. It made everything come to life and seem actually real about this virus,” she said.

During summer of 2020, Lizzie left her home town and embarked on a new chapter in Richmond, Kentucky, to attend Eastern Kentucky University. There, she is studying high school education. She was able to transfer to the local Walgreens for work and remained hopeful.

“I’m super excited, to be honest,” she said about the upcoming school year that started for her in August.

The pandemic “has changed things for me a little but wearing masks and social distancing is like the new norm. I’m glad they’re still having sporting events, but I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out, we will see.”

She said she observed that people in Richmond seem to be taking the virus more seriously than back home. In part, she noted, because there are far more cases in Richmond.

An exit sign along Lizzie Jones standard commute to work to the Walgreens in Martin, Floyd County, Kentucky. Her home was just 10 minutes away and the commute to work was often the only time she’d be able to venture out. (Photo by Lizzie Jones/GroundTruth)

Mary Slone, 48, McDowell, Kentucky

Mary Slone is an English teacher at Floyd Central High School in Langley, Kentucky, who says she’s always been family and community oriented. But her experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded her what not to take for granted: her faith, her community and her students.

The last time Mary in a room with her students before the pandemic gripped the nation was March 9, 2020, during standardized testing.

Signs line the roadway to congratulate graduates of Floyd Central High School, where Mary Slone works as an English teacher, as seen from her car during their first ever graduation parade. Due to the pandemic, the school was unable to host traditional graduation services inside. Mary said the community was expecting graduation to be “doom and gloom” but they were pleasantly surprised and saw the parade as one of the positive moments that came out of the pandemic. “We’re doing another graduation parade because everybody wanted one.” (Photo by Mary Slone/GroundTruth)

“You start thinking about what was the last thing that I said to some students. Did I give them something positive? Was I negative?” she said, recalling the last moments of that school day. She and other teachers sat together while students played games in the gym.

“I wouldn’t have been sittin’ with my buddies, I would have been out hitting a volleyball with some kids. I would have been trying to play basketball, I would have been doin’ something besides being passive… How much have we taken for granted in terms of our interactions with people? We’ve been so busy going and going and going that we have forgotten the power of a moment. And I hope that’s one thing that does not change onces the quarantine is over.”

In July of 2020, Mary reflected on her experience with the ongoing pandemic in writing, opening up about the challenging, multifaceted roles she takes on.

“As a person whose life has been marked by a ‘before and an after’ I had those things I did that helped me to articulate my beliefs as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those things involved action. I attended choir practice, taught Sunday school, attended prayer meetings and attended church. In a matter of a few weeks, the things – the actions – that I associated with being a Christian were basically gone.

Mary’s nephew gives her father a haircut on the front porch. She and her family all live close by one another and created a pandemic pod. This was his first attempt which proved succesful and today he acts as his barber. “I’m a firm believer that every person on this planet wants to be of service.” (Photo by Mary Slone/GroundTruth)

You can add other identities to the list. Friend. Daughter. Fan. Citizen. Mourner. A cousin as well as one of the most influential men on my life both passed away. I was unable to attend the service for either.

It was a heavy time. A time when I was forced to consider what the different aspects of my identity truly mean,” she wrote.

“While I could have done without COVID-19, it has given me the opportunity to no longer define myself solely by my actions. I have had to get to the essentials of what it means to be Mary Margaret Slone.”

BarbiAnn Maynard, 43, Lovely, Kentucky 

BarbiAnn Maynard is a mother of two in Lovely, Martin County, Kentucky. In October of 2000, a coal slurry owned by Massey Energy broke and contaminated nearby water sources leaving municipalities without access to tap water they could trust.

This tragic event only deepened BarbiAnn’s connection to her community, and she has been a water and infrastructure activist with national reach since. BarbiAnn’s past experiences and the practices she’s built by living in a rural environment allowed her to feel some semblance of stability when the global pandemic hit.

Before the pandemic, she had gotten used to taking just a few trips to the store and would stock up on non-perishables and frozen goods. She often gets fresh produce like tomatoes from family members and knows canning and pickling. She and her neighbors also have an established tradition of sharing resources.

BarbiAnn Manyard of Martin County, Kentucky, collects water from a spring on the Logan and Mingo County line in West Virginia. She, like many Martin County residents, felt unable to use her tap water to wash her hands as the county has been in a water crisis since a coal ash spill in 2000. Amid guidance that people should wash their hands more during the global pandemic she found herself doubling the amount of times she visits the spring. The trip is over 40 miles from BarbiAnn’s home and she usually fills roughly 25 one gallon jugs and one 5 gallon jug for her and her family’s daily use. “We’re strong resilient people. We’re like trees that bend in the wind and don’t break.” (Photo by Barbi Ann Maynard/GroundTruth)

“I was raised, ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.’ I was raised that way because of the water,” BarbiAnn said, referencing the Massey Energy disaster.

“Where I live, because we’re on the river, we get flooded quite a bit,” she added. “You got that group of people that you’re stuck with on this island, that y’all got to work together and we’ve done that for decades.”

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for her and her family to navigate emotionally. BarbiAnn and her daughters, A’leigha, 19, and Ashleigh, 17, are self identified extroverts. They’ve limited any social interactions as much as possible. She misses being in large crowds, holding water distributions and attending speaking engagements.

“I’m feeling like this is the new normal. This is the new way of life. And we’re just gonna have to adapt. Just like we had to get used to packing water and relying on bottled water. It’s not normal, but it’s our normal.”

The Tug Fork River as seen from BarbiAnn Manyard’s car. She said the river served as a reminder of water as life. “It was a reminder that life will continue and this is just a memory that I was privileged enough to experience.” (Photo by Barbi Ann Maynard/GroundTruth)

Sasha Jones, 29, Minnie, Kentucky

Sasha Jones is the older sister of Lizzie Jones and an ICU nurse based in Pike County, Kentucky. During the pandemic she found herself working on the COVID unit at Pikeville Medical Center.

Sasha and her colleagues had to adapt at a rapid pace with what materials and knowledge they had. Sasha would voluntarily go weeks at a time without seeing her loved ones in order to limit possibly exposing them to the deadly virus. She had been an avid gym goer, and as gyms closed, she saw her primary form of stress relief disappear into thin air.

Sasha Jones, of Pike County, pulls into the hospital preparing for her work shift as a nurse with her n95 mask on. This day she said she was feeling exhausted working 5-7 day stretches on the night shift. (Photo by Sasha Jones/GroundTruth)

While the hospital eventually allowed a single family member to visit sick patients, Sasha witnessed patients die with no family around them at all. She also witnessed seemingly healthy 30-year-old patients become critical – a phenomena that continues to puzzle her.

“Until you see it with your own eyes, you’re in denial about it,” Sasha said, regarding the severity and diversity of cases she saw in the ICU.

“I tell them (locals who don’t wear masks or are skeptical) that I understand where they’re coming from because they’re not seeing it. It’s all news and they think it’s fake. But I try to tell them from my personal experience, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’m trying to prepare you. You know, if you choose not to do the things that you’re supposed to do, you will regret it later. But, I try to tell them that I have seen it with my own eyes.”

The trunk of Sasha Jones’s car in between work shifts as a nurse in Pike County. She would take everything off when she got home and use disinfectant on her stethoscope, badge and seats of her car. (Photo by Sasha Jones/GroundTruth)

Her entire life would continue to revolve around her role as an ICU nurse. As cases peaked, the few days she would have off of work she would still be on standby.

“Don’t plan anything because you’ll probably end up going back into work anyway,” she was told.

Such circumstances helped Jones see that a work-life balance is most essential. Today, she’s waiting for a time where she doesn’t have to live in fear.

Alexis Batausa, 37, Williamson, West Virginia. 

In the southwest corner of West Virginia, Mingo County saw a spike in positive cases in July 2020. Alexis Batausa vacillated from a simmer of frustration at seeing his neighbors take risks he wouldn’t, and sorrow, knowing some of the county’s most vulnerable people had to endure yet another hardship.

Alexis Batausa, of Mingo County, West Virginia, has run at least 4,000 miles since the pandemic started, part of an active lifestyle he credits with helping him reverse a hyperthyroidism diagnosis. He took this selfie after a long walk with friend Selena Ferguson. (Photo by Alexis Batausa/GroundTruth)

“I know people close to home that are catching the virus right now,” he said. “They felt those symptoms, and I hate that.”

In the early fall, Alexis returned to his job as director of active living at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center. He organized a series of regular hikes to promote an active, healthy lifestyle while encouraging residents to take another look at the county’s natural beauty. So far, it has attracted about 50 people. His commitment to his own fitness resulted in him overcoming hyperthyroidism. “When I found out I just cried because I work hard for what I want,” he said.

Last fall, Alexis enrolled at Marshall University to work toward his bachelor’s degree, a goal he’d put off for 10 years.

“After being laid off,  I’ve been going back and forth and figur[ed] out I need to go back to school because you never know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I think it was time and I did. I just need to do something else to keep going.”

Alexis Batausa snapped this photo of his town from Death Rock, one of Mingo County’s highest points, during a hike with friends. The ultramarathoner, who organizes healthy living programs for the recreation arm of the local health clinic, started leading guided hikes in the area last fall. The views help locals and tourists like “[see] the beauty of what is offered here in our hills and mountains.” (Photo by Alexis Batausa/GroundTruth)
This story is part of a reporting fellowship focused on life in Appalachia produced by The GroundTruth Project and copublished with 100 Days in Appalachia.

A version of this story appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia on MAY 6, 2021

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the story included a quote from Tina Russell in which she claimed to have won 8,000 votes in the county delegate election. She in fact received 7,512 votes. In addition, it was stated that she was the first Black woman to win a Democratic primary in Mercer County, West Virginia. This was not verified.