Becky Simpson remembers watching her little brother die of pneumonia when she was five. Two years later her sister almost followed him. The house was so cold, she recalls, it was warmer outside. She also remembers making, at that tender age, a promise that she would never ever watch someone die without trying to help.
Ten years after their marriage, her husband, Bobby, lost his sight and could no longer and work. Hard times got harder.
“We nearly starved to death,” Bobby remembers. “What we had to live on was what we raised ourselves – garden stuff.”
What saved them was an even bigger catastrophe. One summer, when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse, the skies opened up. It rained seemingly without end for days and their valley was hit with a series of floods. The damage done by the deluge was complicated by the ecological damage caused by strip mining in the mountains above them. Soon, there wasn’t a bridge left in the county.
The way Bobby remembers it, “There were maybe three good cars left in the whole valley. We lost all of our wells and the water in our house was four feet deep.”
What Becky remembers is the hopelessness of standing on a crate near the bank of the river crying in frustration the third time her brother was flooded out. While she cried, she remembered her promise to herself and in the back of her mind a thought formed. What came to her was the knowledge that she had friends she hadn’t met yet.
Acting on that thought, Becky got on the phone and got to work. She organized, cajoled and testified. She arranged meetings, put together petitions, and testified at hearings. Before she was done, she had obtained a million dollars to dredge the silt out of the creek. Then she went to work looking for money for reclamation of the mountains. Surprising even herself, she was able to raise $940,000 to stabilize the mountains and restore their ecological base.
From that success and her new understanding emerged the purpose and direction of her life. Though they live on nothing more than Bobby’s disability pay, the Simpsons founded the Cranks Creek Survival Center, which sees to those in need in a dozen counties in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.
“Human suffering has always moved me,” Becky said, “but I had no idea that any one person could really do anything about it.”
Becky and Bobby do whatever needs to be done. Thousands of volunteers – Becky’s unknown friends – have come to help. They have come from the entire east coast and more than a dozen foreign nations, including India, China, Africa, and Brazil. It is a testimony to the depth of poverty in Appalachia that residents of countries we tend to think of as poor have traveled halfway around the world to aid Americans who are even poorer.
Bobby supervises their building projects and directs the gathering of supplies. Though sightless, he has learned the highways by heart, navigating his driver with a collection of audio and visual cues he has stored up in his mind.
“A lot of handicapped people just sit down and don’t try to do nothing,” he explains, “but there is always something you can do if you try.”
“Somebody once said it was my work,” Becky concludes. “I said, no, it ain’t my work. It’s my life. I had a dream since I was a child that someday I was going to help needy people and now I can do it. It has to be a miracle. That’s the only way I can explain it.
Everyone is needed. As the Simpsons demonstrate, everyone can contribute. No one needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.