“A place to heal:” Eastern Ky community center serves children in times of need for mental health

Lexington, Kentucky (WKYT) – In the past month and a half, what people in eastern Kentucky have experienced has been catastrophic and shocking.

We’ve seen the visible scars of floods appear before us, but what we don’t see is that those waters they left behind leave a deeper impact on the communities and people in whom it occurred.

Amber Philpott of WKYT recently traveled to Whitesburg in Letcher County, a community devastated by devastation, to talk to some of the smaller flood victims and to find out how a community center opened its doors to be an outlet for a mental health break.

It’s a soothing sound, meant to relax – the water flowing through a Letcher County community rushes to a place saved when the water wasn’t too calm.

“The Kwan Community Center has been a part of the community since I was a little girl,” Valerie Horne said.

Horn, director of the Cowan Community Center, describes this little piece of paradise tucked away outside of Whitesburg as blessed land.

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

Kwan Community Center has been serving children and families in the area for over 50 years.

“We were very lucky when we got to get into space to know that he didn’t sink,” Horne said.

But Horn knew the devastation around him was rife in a place that already handled a lot.

‘No one deserves disaster,’ said Horn, ‘to have his house swept out from under him in the darkness of the night and in the early morning.’

It was at this time that Horn realized that this space of service would play a role in moving forward in recovery.

“Within a few days, we realized this was an important place to use as well, and we chose what we do best and know best,” Horn said.

It was for children. For many, flood scars are now deeply rooted.

“I heard from her parents, just yesterday, about her child getting anxious when it started to rain. We need to go home, and it will flood,” Horn said.

The center’s traditional summer program has turned into a place where both children who have experienced floods and those who have not come together escape.

Meals and simple things like games and art were introduced and allowed emotions and healing to play out in a very natural way.

“Their well-being and mental health were a priority and I think what happened is that a lot of their safety has just been shaken,” Horne said.

Andrew is one of those.

Andrew said: “Like all homes, they were washed away.

But despite losing everything, Andrew and his sister Ada found joy in being Kwan’s children.

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

It’s not always just playing. The team there got outside help with their mental health training and often it was just a matter of listening.

WKYT sat in a moment when talking about your feelings was a good thing. You quickly realize that everyone out there, regardless of age, has been affected in some way and that these guys have been looking out for each other.

“These are the people I’ve known mostly all my life,” said one student.

Another student said, “It was horrible, I didn’t cross that, but seeing them get rid of their house, I feel bad.”

Kristen Polly is 11 years old, her family has lost everything in their house and they have been moved multiple times. Middle school was supposed to start this year.

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

Kristen, being a little bit older, was able to be a listening ear herself for those younger.

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

“It helps like taking things off your chest, like helping you get things out and talking about them. It makes it a little lighter to keep it going,” said Kirsten Polley.

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

In a place where there is a tradition of being tough and accepting of circumstances, Horn says, she hopes these children, in the wake of a flood, know that healing takes time, but that it begins in a place where love flows stronger than water.

“There’s a lot of resilience in these guys,” Horn said.

Students in Letcher County return to school on Wednesday and many hope this will continue to help the healing process and provide more normality.

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