A van carrying UVA Wise students had just passed the Virginia border last spring when Professor Shankar Naskar told the class a little about Hindman, Kentucky.
Hindman, the county seat of Knott County, is one of the poorest in the nation. The town is battling the opioid crisis that has gripped many communities in rural areas with dire economic woes. The community has more than double the fatal overdose rates in the nation, and it has not fared well when it comes to Hepatitis C and HIV cases.
The class listened closely as Naskar asked the would-be entrepreneurs a key question.
“Knowing what I just told you, would you open a business in Hindman, Kentucky?” The students responded with a resounding no, but then Naskar told them what town and county leaders are doing to combat the drug crisis and how they are looking for ways to boost the local economy.
Naskar said Hindman leaders created a Culture of Recovery program that gives recovering addicts skills training, and that can lead to potential jobs at the Appalachian School of Luthiery and the Appalachian Artisan Center. The apprentice program partners with a residential rehab center and with the innovative Knott County Drug Court to select those who may benefit from the program. Those who master the skills needed to make stringed instruments or pottery have a good chance of strong recovery as research shows the concentration of working on creative projects helps addicts get their minds pointed toward positive action. Many even make a living from the skills they master.
“Knowing what the town is doing, would you consider starting a new business in Hindman?” Naskar asked.
The students thought about the question for a while before answering. Most seemed willing to consider the option. When they arrived at Hindman, the students were more than impressed. When they entered the luthiery school, the students were awed by the operation.
“Seeing all the guitars and watching how they were made was truly beautiful,” student Patrick Labong said. “It was one of the most inspiring places I’ve ever seen.”
Doug Naselroad, a master lutherier and lead instructor at the school, gave the students a tour and told them about his work and what the apprentices accomplish. The school and the related apprentice programs allow people to come together and develop skills, he said.
“They needed a way to recapture their lives after addiction,” he said.
The recovering addicts have an opportunity to gain pottery skills or blacksmithing skills as well under the apprentice program. The luthiery school gives the recovering addicts three hours a week at the school, and it can take a month or more to build an instrument. Some make dulcimers, guitars or ukuleles. The instruments can be given as a gift to someone the addict wants to make amends to under the 12 Steps program, keep the instruments for themselves, or sell.
Local hardwood is used to make the instruments, which also boosts the local economy. Apprentices who do well are often offered jobs at the nearby Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company. It is not uncommon to see a guitar sold for $3,500 or more. The instruments have gained a national following.
Naselroad said creating something with their hands is therapeutic. Creating a beautiful stringed instrument is a tangible product that a recovering addict can point to with pride.
“It’s a good thing,” Naselroad said. “It’s been a successful program.”
About 76 percent of those who enter the program complete it. Naselroad is proud of those numbers, especially since many who enter the program have been “roughed up” by life.
“It has helped them,” he said. “The people who are here want to be here. We don’t need numbers to know we are doing the right thing.”
The apprentices are urged to keep a journal while in the program, and that task has morphed into songwriting. The songs are often featured on a monthly radio show hosted from the school. Naselroad often performs during the radio show as well.
The school and the Artisan Center attract many visitors to Appalachia. Those involved hope to show the visitors the real story of the region.
“Appalachia has its own issues with stigma, just like the recovering addicts deal with stigma,” he said. “We are very sensitive about that, and we strive to have visitors go home with a new understanding of Appalachia.”
“Seeing Mr. Naselroad’s venture in action changed my perspective,” student Thomas Nauss said. “Over the years, I have had many close friends and relatives become substance abusers. Some of them have gone to rehab, but it has largely been ineffective. I had lost hope in drug rehabilitation, but when I visited the luthiery school and saw the Culture of Recovery in action, I realized that the reason the other rehab facilities were failing was that they were being done incorrectly.”
Nauss said he learned the most important step in rehabilitation was pointing a recovering addict toward what must come next.
“Mr. Naselroad’s Culture of Recovery was not only helping individuals with their addiction, it was also preparing them for getting back into society by allowing them to interact with others in the community while learning a precise trade.”
The students walked across Hindman’s main street to visit the Appalachian Artisan Center. Christy Boyd greeted them and asked where they went to school. The students were pleased to learn Boyd was a UVA Wise alumna. A communication major, Boyd spoke about her former professors, and then she gave the students a full tour of the center.
“It’s a fantastic place to work,” Boyd said. “We realize that we are a region working together to preserve our culture and heritage.”
Boyd explained that the center is dedicated to strengthening an artisan community. Handcrafted and juried items include pottery, jewelry, furniture, quilts, and other crafts.
The pottery section features the work of some of the recovering addicts, including Kim Patton. The young woman resisted the program at first, and was willing to do five years behind bars rather than participate in the program. She changed her mind at the last moment.
Boyd said Patton was reluctant at first, but gradually got more interested in working with clay. It soon became hard to keep her away, Boyd said.
Today, Patton operates two pottery businesses and has been free of drugs for about 37 months. She also teaches pottery classes for the recovering addicts.
“It changed my life,” she said. “That’s about all I can say. It changed my life.”
Patton spent several minutes speaking with the students and showing some of her work and the pottery of the others in the program.
“Meeting that wonderful lady, Kim, who was 36 months clean was special,” student Casey Taylor said. “It proves that this process is working. This proves the program is making a difference.”
Student Jonathan Bailey also said the program is changing lives.
“The program at the Appalachian School of Luthiery seems to have people who seem genuinely happy with what they are doing, and it is making a difference in everyone involved.”
Naskar said the trip to Hindman was designed to show the students that hope and compassion can make a significant difference for a community. The success of the programs in Hindman can serve as an example for start-up companies who are willing to do business in communities who have a dedicated workforce and innovative leaders who are willing to take chances.
The professor asked his students to think of ways the Culture of Recovery program and the luthiery school can do even better in the future. His students did not disappoint.
Bailey said the program and school could grow and develop by maximizing its social media presence.
“Being able to sell the items that are being made and reaching out to other communities in the surrounding area would be huge,” Bailey said.
Student Kendra Stanley offered several thoughts about the program and the apprentice program.
“During our visit, I found myself imagining big music stars coming to the luthiery school and factory to pick out a guitar,” she said. “Guests and big time musicians may even want to buy or make their own instruments. Even one big star could create massive publicity and create a tourist attraction, which would form a much bigger movement.”
Stanley predicts the power of social media and a visit or two from famous musicians would change the game for the venture.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 UVA WiseAlumni Magazine.