Small Town | Big Hopes

The smell of burning cedar and pine wood. Fresh, crisp morning dew lightly hovering over the

damp grass. Warm familiar scents drift softly from my memory and imprint forever upon my

heart the reality that was home.

My identical twin brother and I were born in a city of 33,000 but raised in its outskirts on a farm

in a town of 875. The journey of our lives [so far] has taken a scenic route. Much of childhood

was spend at grandma and pawpaw’s house, on their farm. We got eggs from the hen house.

We slaughtered our own meat (never name the animals). Very early in life, we learned that you

worked for not only what you wanted; you worked for what you needed.

The undergirded tones of my life responsible for much of what I have become is attributed to an

emphasis on family, faith and education.

Family - I am one of [now] 24 grandchildren with lots of other cousins, aunts and uncles, and

great-aunts and great-uncles. Every Sunday we had family dinner. My grandma’s moderately-

sized kitchen ever at full capacity. There was love. There was support. We are the descendants

of slaves. Slavery not only inhibited family formation but made stable, secure family life difficult

if not impossible. That reality not so far removed from present day, my family has always

maintained – with doggedness – an almost sacrosanct necessity of being a strong unit.

My mother remains the single most influential and important person in my life. She raised my

brother and me as a single parent. My father without question loved us dearly but dealt with

addiction issues most of our lives and was therefore absent. Looking back, it was best he not be

a part of our lives during those times. We did enjoy time with him and retrospectively, because

it was so scarce and with his recent passing away, those memories have become more precious.

The inherent struggles that accompany single parenthood are daunting. And I saw this up close

every single day. But I was also privileged to bear witness to grit and determination and


My mother has always been rigid in her standards, but flexible in her approach. Life does not

happen in a nice, neat straight line. It curves. It stops. It is the ability to adjust and keep moving

that makes the difference. She worked hard to ensure our needs were met. She equally

emphasized self-reliance, encouraging us to learn and do for ourselves. It was both a help to

her, and an assurance for us that we would live a life free from dependence on anyone or

anything else. She has always been encouraging. When we were in high school, her job

experienced a massive lay-off. We had no savings; no safety net to fall back on. My brother and

I both worked part time jobs to assist with bills. Our jobs, by the way, never infringed on our

studies nor our extracurriculars. We were both a combination of state medalists in wrestling

and track.

Thankfully, we were able to secure government housing (a nice way of saying the inner-city

projects). I say thankfully because not everyone is so fortunate in their misfortune. It was

tough. Drug deals on the corner. Having to – some nights – sleep on the floor because there

were shootings. It was disheartening. But she would remind us that this was just a chapter in

the book of our lives. That this was not final. But that God had a lesson we needed to learn, and

this was how we would learn it. “God gives the test first, and the lesson after.” She was right. I

learned that the way out of poverty is education. She was blessed to see both her sons

graduate from 4-year colleges and universities, and to see me become the first person in our

family to achieve a graduate degree. She is also grateful that we helped to build her dream

home. She is and remains my hero.

Faith – I am a Christian. Church was a big part of my growing up – I lived in the “Bible Belt” after

all – and it went beyond sermons and nattily attired congregants. It was significant as a part of

my family’s history. My enslaved ancestors established and relied heavily on their churches.

Religion and the assembly of other believers offered a means of catharsis. Like them, we

retained our faith in God and found refuge in church. Wednesdays were for bible study. Sunday

mornings were for Sunday school and church services. Aside from lessons on ethics and God’s

will, church provided me an environment to public speak. Testimony time, usually after praise

and worship and right before the sermon, offered an opportunity to stand before the

parishioners and give an account of any good thing that happened to you the week prior. Here,

I was coached on how to stand when addressing an audience, how to project my voice, and the

significance of devices to emphasize a point, like gestures and repetition. I remain grateful for

these formative experiences.

But as is the case with anything, there were incongruencies with the evangelical vein of

Christianity in which I grew up. This was perplexing and frustrating. There were deep-rooted

norms of underpinning hypocrisy accompanied by unspoken exceptions. For instance:

● “Homosexuality is wrong (Lev. 18:22) but we will eat all the pork and shrimp we want”,

seeming to discard those dietary prohibitions (Lev. 11:2–3, 10).

● “Drinking alcohol is a sin”, but the first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into


Rather than be turned off by this, I decided I would take the approach of studying scripture for

myself and coming to an understanding of it outside of the confines of dogma. It has given me

space to doubt, which is healthy. It has given me a license to question, which anyone who

desires to grow should. And it paved the way for me to have a healthy disassociation with

wrong-hearted cultural norms that sound good as a talking point or on a bumper sticker but

aren’t fit for practice. It was this tact that more than assisted me in my education and career


Education – Education was of utmost importance in my family. It was the golden check that

could be cashed at any time; a license that could never be revoked. My grandmother was the

driver of this sentiment. I was always encouraged to seek wisdom and understanding. One hour

of studies was required after school every day. If we didn’t have homework, we would copy

from the dictionary or thesaurus. I rather enjoyed expanding my vocabulary.

I went on to double major in Music Education and Political Science at East Carolina University; a

university with 28,000 students. I excelled. Homecoming King, the Head Drum Major of the ECU

Marching Band for an unprecedented 3 years, elected Student Body Treasurer and elected

Student Body President and voting member of the University Board of Trustees – at the time,

only the second black student in the school’s 102-year history to do so. My hyper-activity in

undergrad lent itself to a work ethic and drive that propelled me to my first job out of college;

the United States Senate.

Career – I never forgot “where I came from.” It was a blessing and an affirmation of the true

power of grit that I worked for U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC). I served as a Staff Assistant, an

important administrative role that honestly keeps the office running. After a year doing that,

my heart felt a calling to return home to teach.

I began my tenure as Director of Bands for Rocky Mount High School. Continuing not to

abandon the lessons of my upbringing, I helped to transform an anemic program into a thriving

performance organization, achieving High School Teacher of the Year, District High School

Teacher of the Year, and NC Encore Award recipient; all this in my first year. I facilitated life

through music for my students, many of whom experienced identical upbringings as me. What

a blessing to take the hard-knock lessons of my life, to be proof-positive to my students of what

they could become if they were determined to become more than their circumstances. After 3

years of much success, I decided to become the first person in my family to pursue a Masters


I was accepted to The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political

Management. While in school, I was also the principal horn for the GWU Wind Ensemble and

Orchestra and was elected to the Student Body Senate, providing a forceful voice for graduate

students. I worked concurrently full time for U.S. Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-NC). I

currently am the Director of Scheduling for Congressman Conor Lamb (D-PA).

Now what – The individuals and experiences of my life have steered me to a trajectory of


In this service, I have relied on my own story; proof-positive that if you want more, get up and

do more. If you want better, go out and be better. You are not your current circumstances. And

along the way of life’s journey, you will face obstacles. But with education and experience(s),

you are equipped to take the stumbling blocks that were meant to trip you up and make them

the stepping stones that lift you up.

I appreciate my humble roots; my meager beginnings. I’ve had a scenic route of life and

experiences. And I am motivated by a desire to serve. As far as what’s next for me, I believe

elected political office is one of the sincerest forms of public service. I envision getting involved

politically. Stay tuned. You may see me on a ballot sooner rather than later. After all, I am from

a small town with big hopes.

Written by: Tremayne Smith

Kind Hearts and Community

My name is Bernadette Cutlip, but all my family and friends call me Bernie. I was born in

Dayton, Ohio to parents that were raised in the Appalachia region. We moved to the suburbs of

Indianapolis, Indiana when I was 5 years old. My younger childhood memories are of close

neighborhood friends and all the fun activities that revolve around living near a large city. We

made many trips back and forth to Southeastern Ohio for visits with grandparents, aunts, uncles

and cousins, but for me, Indianapolis was home. Southeastern Ohio was merely a great place

to visit. That was until my father bought a farm in Jackson County and moved the family. It was

the summer between my eighth grade and freshman year of high school. What was he

thinking? I was devastated!

I spent the summer sulking, but ultimately decided I was stuck in Jackson and it was up to me to

make the best of it. I rapidly discovered how friendly the people of this community were. I

immersed myself into becoming involved in every possible activity I could find: tennis, band,

summer softball leagues, Tri-Hi-Y, student council and 4-H. All of these organizations helped

instill the values of hard work, compassion, confidence, teamwork and leadership. Looking

back, I see the ability to be involved in so many different activities was a benefit of living in a

small rural community. Had I stayed in the large metropolitan area of Indianapolis, I may have

been lost in the shuffle of huge graduating classes of students.

I would generally ride the bus to school each day, which is unheard of today, and it was there

that I found my purpose. I would help the younger children on the bus with their homework

during the trip home. I would try and help my hard-headed brother with his homework as well.

Teaching just seemed to be what I was meant to do. I enrolled in Rio Grande Community

College. My plan was to attend 2 years there and transfer to Indiana University to complete the

course work and graduate. That plan was disrupted when my mother was diagnosed with

cancer. As bad as that diagnosis was, I again witnessed the loving, kind hearts in the small

rural community of Jackson. I graduated from Rio Grande College and taught 27 wonderful

years for Jackson City Schools.

I now live in a different area of the Appalachian Region, Tennessee. I love to watch the sunrise

peek over the Smoky Mountains and enjoy the numerous outdoor activities this area offers. I

volunteer at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and continue to substitute teach because it is

what my heart longs to do. With children and grandchildren still in Ohio, I take many road trips

back “home” for visits. My family and lifelong friends from Jackson are always close to my

heart, for these people, along with that area, helped mold me into the person I am today. I am

truly thankful and blessed that God chose to plant me in the Appalachian Region.

Dreams built upon dreams.

When I was a kid, my heart was set upon being a teacher. For many years of my childhood, I played out this dream, with friends, neighbors, and relatives being the “students” in my “classroom.” Not knowing then, but knowing now, they were each believers in my dream.

As a child, I had so many great influences in my life, my parents, my siblings, my teachers, and my coaches — each one leaving such a monumental mark on who I was and who I was to become. I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to leave that same kind of impressionable mark on other people's lives. I wanted to help facilitate a drive in people that pushed them to be the best version of themselves — one that pushed them to dive deep, work through every struggle, and be defined by grit rather than circumstances beyond their control.

Living in Appalachia taught me that boundaries, location, and education will never define a person. Grit is what defines us. It’s what is within us. YOU determine the direction in which you will go. YOU choose the successes ahead of you and how you will navigate occurrences others deem as failures. YOU. The most integral part of the success in your life stems from one single perspective.


When I finished college, I had a decision to make. Should I move to the big city, working to earn a paycheck, moving hundreds of miles and hours away from home? Should I chase money and the mindset that so many of my classmates had — eagerly waiting to get out of Southern Ohio? Or should I plant deep roots right in the culture and region that shaped me, right here in Appalachia? I’d love to tell you the decision was hard, but it wasn’t. It really was simple. I wanted to grow roots of my own in the very place that shaped and formed me. I wanted my grit to become someone else's.

You see, you’re not defined by where you were raised, by who you were raised by, or by what you did (or didn’t) have. Instead, you’re defined by what you’ve done about it — what did you make of yourself, where did you choose to win, and what do you believe you can accomplish for the future. You control what is YET to come for your life! The destiny for your life lies in the mindset you adopt!

To the junior or senior that “can’t wait” to leave the small town, consider this. Sure, this is my story, but it can be yours too. Together, one student, one dreamer at a time, we can continue to rewrite the Appalachian story. A new generation of innovators, and dreamers, and teachers, and businessmen and women. Doctors, lawyers, and government officials. All that say, this is home, and it deserves the very best. It deserves me... and it deserves YOU.

I’m Megan. This year marks my 12th year of teaching in the Appalachian region, 34 years of living here, and many years to go. It’s my home. It’s my heart. And it’s my mission.

Written by: Megan Phillips