‘A place of healing:’ Eastern Ky. community center serves children in time of mental health need

'A place of healing:' Eastern Ky. community center serves children in time of mental health need
Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 6:02 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - In the last month and a half, what people experienced in eastern Kentucky was both catastrophic and traumatic.

We have seen the visible scars of flooding play out before us, but it’s what we don’t see that those waters left behind that leave an even deeper mark on the communities and people where it happened.

WKYT’s Amber Philpott recently traveled back to Whitesburg in Letcher County, a community devastated by destruction, to talk to some of the youngest flood victims and to see how one community center opened its doors to be an outlet for a mental health break.

It’s a soothing sound, meant to be relaxing-- the water that flows through one Letcher County community flows to a place that was spared when the water wasn’t so tranquil.

“Cowan Community Center has been a part of the community since I was a small girl,” said Valerie Horn.

Horn, the director of the Cowan Community Center, calls this little slice of heaven tucked outside of Whitesburg a blessed ground.

“The space is comforting and a healing space,” said Horn.

The Cowan Community Center has been serving children and families in the area for more than 50 years.

“We were also very fortunate when we could reach the space to learn it had not flooded,” said Horn.

But Horn knew the devastation around it was widespread in a place already dealing with so much.

“No one deserves the disaster, to have their home swept out from under them in the dark of the night and the early morning,” said Horn.

And it was then that Horn knew this space of serving would play a part in the healing moving forward.

“Within a few days we realized that this was a critical space that needed to be utilized also, and we opted for what we do best and we know best,” said Horn.

And that was serving children. For many, the scars of flooding are now deep rooted.

“I heard from parents, just yesterday, talking about how her child had worried when it began to rain. ‘We need to get home, it’s going to flood,,’” said Horn.

The center’s traditional summer program shifted into a place of escape for both children who experienced flooding, and those who didn’t, to come together.

Meals were provided and simple things like games and art allowed for emotions and healing to play out in a very normal way.

“Their wellbeing and their mental health has been a priority and I think what has happened is a lot have just had their safety shaken,” said Horn.

Andrew is one of those.

“Like all the houses, they got swooped away, all the water just slid it away,” said Andrew.

But despite losing everything, Andrew and his sister Ada have found joy in just being kids at Cowan.

“It’s home, it feels like home,” said Andrew.

It’s not always just play. The team there has had outside help in mental health training and a lot of times it’s about just listening.

WKYT sat in on a moment where talking about your feelings was okay. You quickly understand that everyone there, no matter the age, has been affected in some way and these youngsters have been looking out for one another.

“These are people that I have mostly known my entire life,” said a student.

“It’s been terrible, I didn’t go through that, but seeing them get rid of their house, it makes me feel bad,” said another student.

Kristen Polly is 11, and her family lost everything in their home and have been relocated several times. She was supposed to start middle school this year.

“Honestly it’s really devastating to see all this happen, especially downtown in Whitesburg,” said Kirsten Polly.

Kristen, being a little older, has been able to be a listening ear herself to those younger.

She shares a bond with so many because of the flooding, but she admits talking to others about it has helped her own mental health.

“It helps like take stuff off from your chest, like it helps you let stuff out and talk about it. It makes it a little bit lighter for you to carry on,” said Kirsten Polly.

A sign at Cowan really says it all: “We love our children.”

In a place where Horn says there is a tradition of just being tough and accepting circumstances, she hopes that in the aftermath of flooding, these children know that healing takes time, but it starts at a place where loves flows stronger than water.

“There is a lot of resiliency in these youth,” said Horn.

Students in Letcher County return to school on Wednesday and many there hope that will continue to help in the healing process and provide even more normalcy.