Students with deep ties to coal reach out to Chilean miners' kin


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Run your finger down the roll call carved into slabs of black granite at the Coal Miner Memorial in front of Bethlehem-Center High School, and you'll find the name of John G. Strickovich, who died years ago in a coal mining accident.

He was the great-grandfather of Haley Huhn of Millsboro, now a junior at Bethlehem-Center High in Washington County.

The Fredericktown school has a strong link to mining, from the bronze statue of a coal miner reading at the school's entrance to a small museum and book collection in the high school library.

Some students have relatives who have worked or are currently working in coal mines, including Haley, who has two uncles who are coal miners.

Some students pass a former mine site on the way to and from home. Some live in former mining company towns.

So when a gold and copper mine collapsed in Chile on Aug. 5, trapping 33 miners a half-mile beneath the surface, Bethlehem-Center students had a keen sense of empathy.

Spanish teacher Ray VanSickle gave 37 students in his Spanish 3 and 4 classes an opportunity to reach out to the families of the miners by writing to them in Spanish.

"I just told them how I feel for them and would be so upset if one of our loved ones were in the mine," Haley said.

In Spanish, senior Ian Sowers of Amity wrote, "I live in a community with a great deal of history of coal mines. My father [Brad Sowers] works in the coal mines, and I am happy that every day he arrives home safely, and I hope your loved ones arrive to your homes safely also."

In an interview, Ian said, "It was pretty scary to think it could happen to my dad."

Senior Shane Urbine of Centerville wrote in Spanish, "I live in a region of coal mines in the southwestern region of the state of Pennsylvania. Every day, the trains full of coal pass nearby by home, and I am reminded of the men who risk their lives in the mine in order to support their families. You have both my prayers and hope for the safe return of your families and friends."

In an interview, Shane said he has been following the miners' progress. "I was shocked to hear they wouldn't be out for months."

Chilean officials estimated the miners would be rescued between early November and early December, but last week so much progress was made in drilling that officials thought the rescue preparations would be done by Oct. 12.

Meanwhile, supplies are being sent down through a narrow supply tube.

"When I heard they wouldn't be out for a couple of months, I couldn't believe it," said senior Lindsey Nelson of Marianna, whose grandfather works in a coal mine.

She said she regularly passes the site of a Marianna coal mining accident. In the school library, headlines on a framed front page of the Washington Observer from 1908 report the tragedy in which more than 120 miners died.

While there is no active coal mining in Bethlehem-Center, coal reserves remain, and vestiges of the long history can be found in the communities whose names are tied to mines that once provided jobs, including Marianna and Vestaburg.

The mining history also affects the culture in the district, which has few transient students, said James Stockdale, a newcomer who has been school superintendent for about three months.

"There's a heritage of hard work, commitment and fellowship of the miners," he said. "That's something that strikes me. When men were doing that work closely, all they had was each other. That echoes for me. What I have discovered since I've come here is a very, very tight-knit sense of community and commitment to one another."

Lindsey wrote a poem in Spanish, hoping the words are strong enough to help them to "keep their heads up and have faith."

She wrote:

You are worried.

You are suffering.

You have sorrow.

But we have faith.

We have strength.

We have trust.

But most important we have each other.

I hope these simple words help, and remember we are here for you.

Mr. VanSickle received two physical addresses and an e-mail address for the Chilean families from a friend in Santiago. On Sept. 15, he mailed the originals so the families could see the students' own handwriting and sent copies to the other two addresses.

The class hasn't heard yet whether the families received the letters.

But Ian said, "I hope it touches their hearts and gives them hope."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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