by Mike Templeton
Cincinnatian Kelly Cornett is from Perry County in Eastern Kentucky. She knows this place and she still has family in Perry County who are devastated by the July 28 floods. Kelly Cornett contacted the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition about plans for a benefit for flood recovery in Eastern Kentucky and the possibility of long-term assistance for those impacted by the floods, an activity which UACC is honored to co-sponsor.
I spoke with Kelly Cornett about her work and the reasons behind it. “I finally heard from my family,” Cornett told me at the outset of our conversation. All she could say was “they are alive.” The extent of the damage to homes and lives is such that being able to say family is still alive is about the extent of the blessings some are counting. The damage and human toll of the flooding in Eastern Kentucky remain present challenges. The needs of people impacted by the flooding remain critical, and there are still entire communities that are in need of immediate help. When we reported on flooding in Eastern Kentucky in March of 2021, an issue that became apparent was the fact that the needs of victims of this disaster remain long after the event fades from the news cycle. This is the case today.
Kelly’s current focus is a benefit concert and literary reading to be held at WordPlay Cincy on September 9 from 7-11; doors open at 6:30. WordPlay is located at 1556 Chase Avenue in Northside. Joining WordPlay Cincy and UACC as sponsors of the event are Downbound Books & Shake-It Records.
This outdoor/indoor event will benefit the Hindman Settlement School’s Flood Relief Fund, which provides direct assistance in eastern Kentucky and will also help rebuild this important community cultural and education institution. Some of those reading include Core member Pauletta Hansel, MoPoetry Phillips, Carter Sickels and Robert Gipe. Pauletta grew up in Breathitt, Perry and Letcher counties. She says almost every community she lived in was affected by the flood: Jackson, Hiner, Neon and Seco. MoPoetry hails from Bell County, Kentucky which has seen its share of flooding in the past. Robert Gipe lives in Harlan County. Carter Sickels grew up in Ohio; his writing has been profoundly benefited by the annual Appalachian Writers Week at Hindman Settlement School; Pauletta and Robert have long histories with Hindman Settlement School’s programs as well.
The bands are still to be announced, but look for a diverse offering of local favorites.
The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is serving as fiscal sponsor for the event. While ticket sales have not yet begun, donations can be made here.
Kelly Cornett’s motivation for this benefit and the long-term project of providing assistance to Eastern Kentucky flood victims is deeply personal. Having grown up in Perry County, and after moving to northern Kentucky as a teenager, she knows well the kinds of struggles and hardship the people of Eastern Kentucky are facing. As she explained, “I grew up witnessing the need that exists there—the defeat and heaviness that exists with such a long history of engineered catastrophes.” These experiences are what compels Kelly Cornett to do something about the current catastrophe.
Cornett’s experiences back home in Perry County and her early years in greater Cincinnati exemplify the difficulties Appalachian people experience at home and in the urban areas to this day. “I remember my grandmother as the last one of us to live the old ways. Everything died out after her,” Cornett explained. The extraction industries left nothing but the destruction of jobs and the environment, and there is simply nothing left for many people in areas afflicted by the floods. She went on to tell me: “We sold all the old family heirlooms at roadside flea markets.”
Even after coming to northern Kentucky as a teenager, the adjustments took a serious toll on Kelly and her family. Her drive to provide sustained relief for the people of Eastern Kentucky is driven by experiences that are two-fold. “We live with abundance around here, while just over three hours away people are struggling to simply survive.”
In the course of our conversation, we talked about the impact of things like the extraction industries in Eastern Kentucky and the legacy this has left. Areas around Eastern Kentucky have some of highest incarceration rates in the country and this is in some part driven to fuel the for-profit prison industry that has taken over in parts of Appalachia. “What else are you going to put on a ripped-up mountain but a prison,” Cornett observed.
Kelly Cornett is moved to organize this benefit and long-term help because, as she said, “not a lot of people have the perception of people living in these places. We are so removed from the people of Eastern Kentucky.” To that end, this benefit will provide some insight into the lives of people who are quite close to us geographically but remain distant to all but those who have direct ties to the region. Core members and many others associated with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition well know the sentiments of Kelly Cornett, and we will be on hand to support Eastern Kentucky and its people. The benefit for flood recovery will be held at WordPlay at 1556 Chase Avenue in Northside on September 9, and it will directly benefit the Hindman Settlement School’s Flood Relief Fund. There will be literature and a variety of music. An event page will be posted when more information is available.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.