Ruth Kulick grew up in Arlington and was a theater major in
college; her high school sweetheart, John, was an art history major.
We have this hidden blindness to our own poor.” Ruth Kulick
“We were two fairly unemployable people,” she said. She liked
building theater sets, so she became a shop teacher, while John taught art.
They got married and found teaching jobs near Madison, a small
rural town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah
“We stayed here because we just love it,” said Kulick. They’ve
lived a mile off of Route 29 for more than 40 years, raising four children.
They now have 14 grandchildren, and still enjoy “the lovely fun of having
animals” — especially chickens.
Many Northern Virginians flock to Madison County to hike, visit
area wineries or just drink in the idyllic scenery of the countryside around
the Blue Ridge. But they may not know that amid the pastoral beauty, many rural
families are barely eking out a living.
When Kulick first moved to the area, “I had never in my life seen
that kind of poverty,” she said, citing three interconnected issues: lack of
transportation, lack of housing and lack of job opportunities. “The area is so
pretty, but if you’re not a trained teacher, accountant, attorney, dentist or
pharmacist, there are just not that many places to get jobs, and there’s no
public transportation.” Low-paying part-time jobs can be found 20 or 30 miles
away in Culpeper or Charlottesville, but with the cost of gas and car upkeep,
the economics often don’t add up.
“You’d make more money if you just got unemployment. It’s a
serious conundrum,” Kulick said.
The poverty rate in rural Virginia is 16 percent, compared with
about 9 percent in urban areas; according to federal statistics, more than 17
percent of the rural population has not completed high school. When she taught
shop, many of the 13- and 14-year-old boys in her classes were functionally
illiterate, familiar with tools but unable to read instruction manuals. With no
jobs nearby, their parents became cross-country truckers, leaving the children
alone for long periods.
“These were realities I didn’t know existed,” she said, adding
that Virginia’s rural poor are often undercounted because a lot of families
live up in the hills. Others rent substandard trailers “that should be
Kulick, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in
Madison since it was founded in 1977, became an advocate for her new neighbors,
traveling to churches in Arlington and Fairfax counties to speak on Sundays
after Mass to build connections and seek donations. She works closely with her
parish, which does its own outreach, and with the Madison Emergency Services
Association, a small local nonprofit that runs a food pantry and thrift shop.
Kulick knows Catholics in Northern Virginia are generous, raising
tens of thousands of dollars a year for global appeals — but many have no idea
of the poverty that exists within their own diocese, just two hours away. “We
have this hidden blindness to our own poor,” she said.
Her four children, three of whom are alumni of Christendom
College in Front Royal, realized that technology could go a long way to help in
Kulick’s mission. They recently created a nonprofit called Catholic Outreach
for Rural Virginia, or CORV, and built an informational website to help educate
people about rural poverty. A “Donate Now” button makes it easy to make
tax-deductible online contributions.
The website also promotes donation drives held throughout the
year to provide assistance with food and other needs. One collection focuses on
personal care and hygiene supplies, which can’t be bought with food stamps.
Another, coming up in August, collects children’s backpacks and school
supplies. A drive in December solicits Christmas gifts for local children and
seniors. Donations are accepted for gas cards and other transportation
assistance all year long.
Northern Virginia has poverty, but in rural areas “it’s severe,
so people just wanted to help,” said Father Dennis W. Kleinmann, pastor of St.
Veronica Church in Chantilly, one of the parishes Kulick has visited. In the
past six years, St. Veronica’s Knights of Columbus Council has collected more
than 10 tons of diapers, deodorant and other hygiene items, as well as cash
donations and gift cards.
In late June, St. Veronica also sent 22 young people to Madison
to help at the nursing home and food pantry and to work on small construction
projects. “We’re not the wealthiest parish in the world, but charity demands we
try to be generous,” Father Kleinmann said.
St. Agnes Church in Arlington and St. Raymond of Peñafort Church
in Springfield also have supported Madison for many years, and Sacred Heart of
Jesus Church in Winchester is getting involved in some new projects. Diocesan
Catholic Charities’ St. Lucy Food Project provides food support. “We have a
lifeline called Route 29 to Northern Virginia,” Kulick said.
She hopes the CORV website will help spread the word and get more
parishes to focus on the issue of rural poverty — maybe even inspire Catholic
entrepreneurs to get together to brainstorm creative ideas to address the rural
housing crisis and create new jobs.
“You can’t ask people to help themselves when they have no
tools,” she said.
Find out more
Go to corvhelp.org or call 540/660-9235