Mother Teresa of Appalachia

Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on November 5, 2000

Becky Simpsons handiwork can be seen all along the homes that line the curving, twisting ribbon of asphalt known as Highway 421 in eastern Kentucky. We put a new roof on that house, she says, pointing to a small white dwelling dwarfed by trees and kudzu.

Down a steep hillside, a white-haired elderly woman stands in the doorway of a small house tucked into a treacherous curve. Simpson notes her name and sadly explains that the elderly woman occasionally depends on her for food.

But then a lot of people in this corner of Kentucky coal country depend on Becky Simpsoncalled The Mother Teresa of Appalachia by one of her volunteers. Shes put roofs over heads, floors under feet, food in stomachs, and hope in hearts.

Simpson, 64, is founder and director of the Cranks Creek Survival Center, operated from her modest home on the banks of Cranks Creek. From here, volunteer work crews are assigned homes to repair or build, boxes of donated food and clothing are sorted and delivered, and needy families are welcomed to the sparse store to take what they need.

Its all part of Simpsons lifelong plan to help her neighbors; a desire that grew from her own impoverished childhood. I thought that some day, God willing, Id be able to help needy people, she says. It (isnt) a daydream anymore; its a reality.

Scenic beauty easily masks the poverty that pervades these hollows. But in 1977 this beauty was upended by torrential rains and raging floodwaters, worsened by abandoned strip mines that eroded hillsides and sent mud, trees, and debris into the valleys.

In the devastation, homes were washed away (including that of Simpsons brother), wells were contaminated, and lives were lost. I kept thinking theres got to be something somebody can do, Simpson says, recalling how no relief help came from the state or federal government.

Help, instead, came from Becky Simpson, whose steely determination and neighborly love outweighed her third-grade education. She inventoried the losses, spearheaded a class-action lawsuit, and testified before Congress to advocate tougher strip mine reclamation laws to prevent such floods in the future. It was worth my three days of trembling, she says of the resulting legislation.

But her most enduring labor of love has been the survival center, founded in 1982 on the advice of a dear friend, and run with the help of her husband, Bobby, and other family members. People started giving, she says. Word started spreading and it turned into what it is now.

Now, more than 600 homes have been repaired by church groups, schools, and concerned citizens who travel to Cranks and stay, usually for a week, in the dormitories. Those volunteers, who number about 1,000 each year, bring money to pay for building supplies and their own food. But for as much as they give, they usually come away with much more, says Christy C.J. Strange, 25, a volunteer who just spent her first year out of college coordinating work crews.

Strange, a self-described Indiana farm kid, learned to look past the poverty and into peoples hearts. I guess I learned to look for the similarities in all of us, she says. Even though their house doesnt have the nicest carpet, theyre still human beings, and they still have the same wants and same needs that I have.

Simpson understands needs, and thats why she doggedly continues her work. Her newest goals: to finish two homes, one for abused children, one for homeless veterans. Despite health problems and the struggle to raise money, she knows these dreams eventually will be realized.

Simpsons faith is strong, Strange says. So strong in fact that when she gives away her much-needed utility bill money, she reminds Strange that God will provide. And then well go to the post office and theres $250 that someone sent. Its just her faith. Its not something she thinks about; its just her nature.