By Donna Daniels
Wayne Riley left his home of London, Ky., to seek work in 1974. He found employment in places like Washington, D.C., Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn., but he said, “Everywhere I went it seems I would have this urge for the life we lived at home, where we helped neighbors and everyone worked together.”
While on a visit back home one weekend, Riley’s cousin asked him to sit with his Aunt Lutishia Riley Bailey, who was sick and dying. As he sat by his elder’s bedside, he engaged in a conversation that set the direction for the rest of his life.
Riley shares the story with a bit of a chuckle: “I told my niece that my aunt was losing her mind, but her words held truth.” The two were basically chatting, and suddenly she switched the conversation to how she didn’t understand Riley and his generation. “She called us the most lazy and trifling people. She said that we didn’t do anything in the community to help the young people. She complained that we were too lazy to get out of bed for church on Sundays.” At the time, Riley said, he dismissed her words, returning to Nashville to work.
His aunt passed, and the next time Riley heard from his cousin, he learned that there was an article in the local paper detailing that the historic Mill Street Baptist Church in London was condemned and going to be torn down. Trained as a carpenter, Riley returned to London with the objective of saving the church. He joined with church members to restore the electricity and make the repairs needed to save the building.
His aunt’s words and returning to work on the church revived in him the deep roots of his raising in Laurel County. “We always did things with the church and the community and older people. I had it in my blood.” Restoring an old church building was just the beginning of Riley’s work to serve his community in London.
He formed the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in 2004 to honor his late aunt and to preserve African American heritage and history in the community. The Heritage Center is housed in the historic church and is at the core of a variety of programs that serve people in London by aiming at restoring dignity and hope, and providing a means of self-reliance.
“We realized that the Heritage Center wouldn’t survive solely as an African American heritage museum,” Riley said. So, they started a food pantry and distributed clothing to the needy. And they began to conduct youth programming to provide guidance to children. On Friday evenings, they cooked and sold dinners as a way to raise money to keep the lights on.
Seven years ago, the Heritage Center became a site for Grow Appalachia, a food security program that serves families throughout Appalachia. The program is now among one of the largest activities that Riley undertakes.
“We teach people how to grow organic, healthy gardens,” Riley shared. “We hold classes twice a month from March to October.” The classes teach a variety of topics, such as how to prepare the soil, when and how to plant and harvest, and how to preserve food by canning or dehydrating.
The site had 25 gardeners in the summer of 2016, each with their own garden site. “We have an education site with high tunnels and a large garden,” Riley explained.
The group is beginning to expand the types of food they are producing. They now have fruit trees and bee
s. In collaboration with Kentucky State University, they have begun raising chickens and rabbits. And they are experimenting with sheep and goats, initially thinking they might try to produce wool, but recently shifting the focus to meat production.
Riley said that the Grow Appalachia program is making a difference in the lives of local people. When he met one of the gardeners seven years ago, they had just depleted the last of their unemployment benefits. “I got them involved in the program, and they started growing a garden on an acre of land.” Now he said that they have a vision of growing enough produce to eat and sell. They have diversified with honey, blueberries and raspberries, among other produce. “With their entrepreneurial spirit, they are an example of someone who can take nothing and create an income,” Riley observed.
Regardless of whether people become agricultural entrepreneurs, the program creates a sense of community. Building a sense of justice and equality is part of Wayne’s broad vision for this work. “I really want to be able to create an atmosphere where people can feel family and love and feel included,” he said. “I offer the program to people who will help one another, such as when someone might be out of town for a week and need someone to tend their garden.”
Being involved in gardening and food preparation meets a basic need while encouraging participation and inclusion of young and old alike. The work among different generations teaches young people and older people how to rely on one another, addressing the issue Riley’s aunt had raised years before about how people no longer served as mentors to the youth in the community.
Through a youth program, Riley’s program works to bridge the gap between youth and lost foodways that haven’t been passed down for a variety of reasons.
“There are so many kids that don’t know much more than how to play a video game. They don’t know how to survive if they can’t just go to the store and buy food. We have young people who should have seen their mothers or grandmothers talk about gardening or canning, but they didn’t,” Riley said.
Through the Grow Appalachia program, Riley works to help young people understand that gardening and preserving food is a way to make a paycheck go a little further. Meanwhile, they might also explore ways to create an income in a safe, healthy and sustainable fashion through food production.
With this in mind, the group is now working to create a commercial kitchen where local growers can preserve and market foods they produce. They received a loan from the HEAD Corporation to purchase a lot and in mid-July 2016, they moved a house that had been donated by the city of London. Now they are raising money to put a foundation back under the structure and begin renovations that will allow it to be used as a commercial kitchen.
For Riley, the house might serve as a symbol of the solidity of the program he oversees.
“Everything we do allows the community to get more involved and to realize that we are here to stay, not just here today and gone tomorrow,” he said. “This community kitchen will not only create an opportunity for economic growth in the community but it will allow us to preserve and stockpile food to provide people who need it in the winter time.”
When people are producing their own food, they develop a great deal of pride in themselves and their abilities. Allowing people to have that sense of pride is an important value Riley holds in his service to the community.
“We don’t give handouts,” he stated. “We give hand ups. Even the poorest of the poor have pride, and when you break that pride, you hurt them and they don’t come and get help. At that point, some of them might do desperate things that cause them to have a criminal record.”
Looking to the future, Riley said if he could find the resources, he would expand the garden program so that he could hire young people who have been failed by the system. He said he would like to take them out of incarceration or other circumstances.
“We engage work release prisoners in our current efforts,” Wayne said. He said he sees many of them that come from bad situations and need to develop more than gardening skills. “I would have a program that could house them and help them with social, money management, parenting and other life skills.”
While he doesn’t yet have this kind of facility, there is a house on the educational garden property that he uses as transitional housing for men who need a place to stay. That house is designed to serve up to six men who need a place to land for one reason or the other. For example, Riley said that a young man, who recently had lost his wife and was having a difficult time, hitch-hiked 50 or so miles to London where he had been promised a construction job. When he arrived, the job didn’t materialize, and he was left stranded and penniless. He stayed at the transitional house for six months as he got back on his feet.
“The men work in the garden,” Wayne explained, “but I also require them to find other employment.” And when they do, they pay a nominal fee to help cover electricity and other costs for staying at the house. He hopes the experience strengthens a sense of responsibility and pride as these men find jobs and permanent places to live.
The programs of the Laurel County African American Heritage Center are well beyond the scope of preserving history. Rather, Wayne Riley is overseeing activities that are seeding and fertilizing more productive lives and a stronger community for all those involved.
“I would like for people to understand I am not trying to help just one ethnic group of people. You have to help all people starting where they are,” Riley said. “And I didn’t start this to end with me. I want someone who will be proud enough of this community to come along and carry it to the next level when I can’t do it anymore.”
Resources for more information:
Laurel County African American Heritage Center web site: www.lcaahc.org.
Laurel County African American Heritage Center Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/lcaahc.inc
The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development turns 40 this year. To help celebrate this milestone, the organization has taken a step back to reflect on the amount of just economic transition that’s taken place in the region over the past 40 years. They’ve been collecting stories, and have compiled them on a new website, “Stories from the Mountains.”
Renew Appalachia is proud to share some of those stories over the holiday months, as a way to spread the hope and joy that is present when the people of eastern Kentucky begin to rebuild their communities together, with an eye on the future.