( CNN ) Straddling US Route 52 as it gusts through the mountains of southern West Virginia, Iaeger is a town of simply 350 residents.
For most of his life, Cody DeLong has been one of them .
“McDowell County is the hometown that you see in all those high school football movies, ” told DeLong, 22. “It’s two-lane streets . … We have one stoplight in the whole county. And the peoples of the territories are the greatest people you’ll ever satisfied in your life.”
A graduate of Concord University, DeLong said McDowell County was an excellent place to grow up.
But as he prepares to psyche to pharmacy school in the fall, he’s not sure whether the home that shaped him — and devoted him his love for hunting and fishing — will be a part of his future .
The state, and such regions including with regard to, has been hit particularly hard — from decreased demand for coal, long the economic bedrock of the region, to the opioid crisis gripping many rural townships .
Most problematic for McDowell County’s future: People are leaving and not going to come back .
The loss of coal mining undertakings has accelerated in recent years. In the fourth one-quarter of 2011, coal utilized 26,000 West Virginians. By the second quarter of 2016, that number had plummeted to just 12,000.
In 1950, McDowell County has virtually 100,000 inhabitants, many of whom ran in the area’s coal mines. Today, McDowell is one of the poorest districts in the country, with median household income under $25,000 and simply over 20,000 people in the county.
West Virginia high school grads go to college at a lower rate than their American peers, with 55% enrollment, compared to 64% nationally.
With the future of southern West Virginia uncertain, we asked recent graduates from the region: Do they plan to stay in West Virginia to build a life and career, or do they feel the need to get out to succeed?
All the students we spoke with will enroll in college or have already graduated. Here’s what six of them said about their futures — and that of their home .
From the coalfields to Cambridge
Grace Bannister, 17
This fall, Logan County’s Grace Bannister is heading to a place worlds away from where she grew up: Harvard University.
“I think there’s a very large gap in the quality of life between where I’m from and where I’m moving, ” she told .
Bannister has lost family members to narcotic overdoses and considered her father’s mining supply company weather tough times be left in business. She’s worried about the future of her home .
“I nearly feel like it’ll become like a phantom town because most of the population at this point is older, ” she told .
At Harvard, Bannister plans to major in government or anthropology. Unlike some other recent graduates we spoke to, Bannister wants to be a part of the change she says her home needs.
“I hope to someday come back and either to continue efforts to make a difference working in the legal sector to help people get their lives on track, or I’d really like to someday run for public agency — maybe Senate or governor to try to help on a national level.”
‘They merely want to jump on the bandwagon to make fun’
Cody DeLong, 22
His father, friend, uncles and several cousins have worked in southern West Virginia’s coal mines, but Cody DeLong plans to take a different path .
This fall, DeLong will begin his first year at Marshall University’s School of Pharmacy. When he finishes school, he doesn’t think he’ll return home but he plans to settle somewhere in rural Appalachia.
Growing up in McDowell County and witnessing the toll that drug abuse took on many families contributed him to discover his life’s calling .
“There are a lot of doctors and pharmacists that — you can’t really blame it all on them — but they actually contribute to the big outbreak of opioid insult that we have.”
He doesn’t deny the problems facing McDowell County — “The facts are the facts” — but is critical of how the mainstream media has embraced his house .
“They don’t actually find any of the success tales, ” he said. “They only want to jump on the bandwagon to make fun.”
‘We basically had to start over from nothing’
Joseph Hayes, 17
In 2001, as deadly overflows swept through McDowell County, Joseph Hayes’ mother fetched him from day care in a terror before fulfill his father and fleeing to higher ground .
By the time the waters subsided, the family’s home, bird-dogs and nearly everything they owned was turn .
“We basically had to start over from nothing, ” Hayes said .
With FEMA’s assistance, Hayes and his family relocated to a trailer park near Welch, West Virginia, where he spent much of his childhood.
Despite the hardship, Hayes excelled in the classroom and on the football field. This fall, he will play football at Glenville State College. If his NFL dreams don’t pan out, he’d like to pursue a career in physical therapy. And though he mentions it’s unlikely, he remains open to the idea of returning to McDowell County .
“I hope things pick back up and do well, but the future right now isn’t looking the best, ” he mentioned. “I want to come back, but I don’t want to come back with nothing. I want to come back with something to help the people here.”
The ‘tree hugger’ who is pro-mining
Daniel Buchanan, 18
In Gilbert, West Virginia, where the mascot of nearby Mingo Central High School is the “Miners, ” coal mining is a deeply entrenched way of life — one that Daniel Buchanan knows well. “His fathers” invested much of his life working in the ours .
So when Buchanan says he am willing to major in biology or environmental science, the potential conflicts between the livelihood of his hometown and his own future are obvious. But Buchanan doesn’t see it that way. He says you can am worried about the natural environment and also said he hoped that coal returns to its former beauty .
“A lot of people ask me the issues to, ‘What are you going to do when you get older? ‘ I tell them that I want to do something with the environment, and the first thing they think is, ‘Oh, so that means you’re a tree hugger.’ But in reality, I am all for the coal mines, ” Buchanan said .
Buchanan is open to the idea of returning to Mingo County after college, but feels that staking the hopes of the region on a rebounding coal industry is risky.
“I think it would be wonderful if coal came back to where it was, mention, 10 or 15 years ago. But we still need to diversify, ” he mentioned. “We need to have other options other than coal, because coal is not going to be around eternally — it’s simple science.”
Looking for ‘somewhere a little more progressive’
Emma Pino, 18
Emma Pino lost her father to cancer when she was only 13, but her period growing up with him in Oak Hill, West Virginia, inspired her to pursue a career helping others.
Pino says her father struggled with mental disorders for years, but detected success with treatment. And though he didn’t finish college, he pushed his daughter to glisten academically .
After graduating among the priorities of her class this spring, Pino will attend West Virginia University in Morgantown, where she plans to major in psychology and work with people like her parent.
“‘[ Psychological care] helped him become their own lives around, so I are truly love to do that for somebody else, ” she said .
Pino isn’t sure this is right she’ll settle to start her career but mentions it was likely won’t be in West Virginia .
“For me personally, I suppose I need to go somewhere a little more progressive, ” she mentioned. “It’s just sort of sad to watch people so hopeful for even the current president to set all the problems that we have here, and I don’t see it happening.”
‘ … A close-knit family , no matter the race’
Nadia Johnson, 18
Growing up in a town with fewer than 200 occupants, Nadia Johnson tells she adoration the community where she was raised .
Johnson is African-American, and though McDowell County is virtually 90% white, she says she never experienced racism or discrimination.
“When I first started going to school, my best friend was of a different race, and we are still best friend to this day, ” she told. “We are a close-knit family , no matter the race.”
Lately, residents of all races have experienced misery. Over the course of her 18 years, Johnson has visualized businesses and jobs flee the region. Last year, a Walmart supercenter — one of the few grocery suppliers nearby — shut its doors .
“There are other grocery stores we can shop at, and thankfully, I live close enough to the surrounding counties so I can easily run … but for other people, they have to travel 45 minutes to an hour only to get to Walmart, ” Johnson told .
Others in her family have gone to college, but Johnson — who finished among the priorities of her class and plans to study chemistry at Concord University — is aiming to become the first to complete a higher degree. If she succeeds, she doesn’t reckon she’ll be back in McDowell County.
“I plan to come back to visit … but coming back and merely living here all “peoples lives”? I don’t believe I’ll do that.”