‘A place of healing:’ Eastern Ky. community center serves children in time of mental health need

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) – What people in eastern Kentucky have experienced over the past month and a half has been both catastrophic and traumatic.

We’ve seen the visible scars of flooding before us, but what we don’t see is that the waters left behind leave even deeper marks on the communities and people where they happened.

WKYT’s Amber Philpott recently traveled back to Whitesburg, in Letcher County, a devastated community, to speak with some of the recent flood victims and see how a community center opened its doors to offer a mental health break.

It’s a soothing sound meant to be relaxing — the water flowing through a Letcher County community is flowing to a place that was spared when the waters weren’t so calm.

“The Cowan Community Center has been a part of the community since I was a kid,” said Valerie Horn.

Horn, director of the Cowan Community Center, calls this little slice of heaven outside of Whitesburg blessed ground.

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

The Cowan Community Center has served children and families in the area for more than 50 years.

“We were also very lucky when we were able to get to the pitch to find out it wasn’t flooded,” Horn said.

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But Horn knew the devastation was widespread around him in a place that already had so much to do with.

“Nobody deserves the disaster of having their home swept away in the dark of night and early in the morning,” Horn said.

And then Horn knew that this space of service would play a role in the ongoing healing.

“Within a few days we realized that this is a critical space that needs to be leveraged as well and we chose to do what we do best and know best,” said Horn.

And that served children. For many, the scars of the floods are now ingrained.

“I just heard from parents yesterday talking about how their child was worried when it started raining. ‘We have to go home, it’s going to be flooded,'” said Horn.

The center’s traditional summer program became a sanctuary for children affected by flooding and those who didn’t to come together.

Meals were provided and simple things like games and art allowed for emotion and healing in a very normal way.

“Their well-being and their mental health was a priority and I think what has happened is that many have just had their safety shattered,” Horn said.

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Andrew is one of them.

“Like all houses, they were thrown away, all the water just washed them away,” Andrew said.

But despite losing everything, Andrew and his sister Ada have found joy in just being kids with Cowan.

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

It’s not always just a game. The team there have received outside help with mental health training, and often it’s just a matter of listening.

WKYT was there in a moment when it was okay to talk about your feelings. They quickly understand that everyone there, no matter their age, is affected in some way and these youngsters have been looking out for each other.

“These are people I’ve known most of my life,” said one student.

“It was awful, I didn’t go through that, but when I see them getting rid of their house, I feel bad,” said another student.

Kristen Polly is 11 and her family has lost everything in their house and has been moved several times. Actually, she should have started middle school this year.

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

Kristen, who is a bit older, was able to listen to the younger ones herself.

She’s connected with so many people because of the flooding, but admits that talking about it with others has helped her own mental health.

“It helps to take things off your chest as it helps you to let things out and talk about them. It makes it a little bit easier for you to keep going,” said Kirsten Polly.

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

In a place where Horn says there’s a tradition of just being tough and accepting of circumstances, she hopes these children will know after the floods that healing takes time, but it begins in a place where love flows more powerfully as water.

“There is a lot of resilience in this youth,” said Horn.

Letcher County students are returning to school Wednesday, and many hope this will further aid the healing process and bring even more normalcy.

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