Hard times could have divided us

By Michael Cooper

The Weave project joined with weavers in Wilkes County, NC, to support the Weaving Wilkes Community Partnership in 2023. Video by Jared Shumate ©Aspen Institute

Set in the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina, my hometown was wild, beautiful, and thriving. Wilkes County was the birthplace of NASCAR and Lowe’s Home Improvement. But as I grew up, life grew harder.

The factories started closing, jobs were scarce, and we found ourselves on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic. We got national media attention as ground zero for the deterioration of rural America. But that wasn’t the end of our story.

People came together to rebuild from the bottom up. Friends opened Anchor Coffee, so we would have a place to meet again after many Main Street businesses closed. LB Prevette, who fled Wilkes after high school for opportunity and acceptance as someone gay, returned to start support groups for those who felt marginalized.

Wilkes is now home to the 2023 Recovery Organization of the Year. Wilkes Recovery Revolution has been an example for many communities torn apart by the opioid epidemic.

It was started by a childhood friend, who like me, fell victim to the drug epidemic. Devin Lyall broke her ankle on a ski trip, underwent several surgeries, and was prescribed opioids to treat the pain. She became addicted and within months lost her job, her home, and custody of her children.

Through hard work, she got her life back and wanted that for others. Wilkes Recovery Revolution provides housing, peer-support, and employment through a garden and thrift store. It started a recovery-friendly workplace initiative and hosts weekly spiritual gatherings, meetups for young people, and yoga classes. I now serve on her board.

And just this year, NASCAR came back to the North Wilkesboro Speedway, after it left 28 years ago.

There’s a Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Wilkes is full of strong people. That’s not in spite of our history. It’s because we let hard times bring us together, rather than divide us.

The Weave project partnered with Wilkes County weavers and held its first Weaver Awards here last year. You can see the strength and love that still makes Wilkes a great place to grow up in the profiles of my neighbors who are the first 20 Weaver Awardees.

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