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From a Loving Family to An Orphan: My Story

June 26, 2014
By CASEY JUNKINS , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - As a 4-year-old boy in 1982, I remember my dad getting up at night to go to work the midnight shift at the coal mine. Mom and I would wish dad a good day at work, while seeing him off to the job.

Such was likely the case for many blue-collar families across the Upper Ohio Valley in the early 1980s, as numerous coal mines dotted the countryside. Men who did not work in coal mines in those days likely toiled in one of the numerous factories or steel mills aligning the Ohio River from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in Steubenville to Ormet Corp. in Hannibal. Dad, himself, had taken a turn at Ormet in the 1970s, prior to my birth.

While dad performed his work in the coal mine, mom was able to spend most of the time at home with me. She did work occasionally, though, as a clerk at a variety store in Bellaire.

However, by the end of 1982, things started to change. Due to a combination of increased environmental regulations that made Ohio's coal less valuable, increased mechanization of the mining process, and a downturn in the national economy, my dad got laid off at the coal mine. There had been layoffs at the mine before, so he believed he would soon be called back to work. Little did any of us realize it would be five long years before dad would again work at the coal mine.

By the time I started kindergarten in the fall of 1983, dad was working a variety of "odd jobs" to help keep us afloat. Whether he cut grass, painted buildings, repaired automobiles, drove delivery trucks, or found other types of work, dad always found a way to keep the bills paid. Mom, meanwhile, continued working part-time at the variety store to help as much as she could.

Over the next few years, it became clear many of my classmates at school were in a similar economic predicament. When our teacher would ask us about our lunch plans upon our morning arrival, most of us would just say "free" in reference to our qualification for the free school lunch program.

Despite our economic challenges, my mom and dad loved me so much that they made sure I never felt poor. Between my parents, grandparents and other relatives, I got virtually any toy I ever wanted. Dad would often take me fishing on Saturdays, while mom and I were always going shopping with my grandmother. Life was a blast during these years.

In late-1987, by which time I was in fourth grade, dad finally got a call to return to work at the coal mine. I remember how happy we all were, as we believed we were on the road to economic stability. However, following a wonderful Christmas celebration, the reprieve proved to be short-lived, as dad once again found himself in the unemployment line.

Throughout 1988, dad picked back up with his "odd jobs," while mom kept up her part-time work at the variety store. Then, one day shortly after I began fifth grade that fall, life would change forever.

Though I had no true understanding of what this meant at the age of 10, dad was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer - and it had already started to spread. Through the rest of 1988 and into early 1989, he traveled to various hospitals - some as far away as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. - to try to get help.

As she was now concerned with dad's condition, mom found herself in the hospital in the late spring of 1989. Though both my parents tried to protect their now 11-year-old son from the news, mom began receiving treatment for breast cancer.

By the time fifth grade concluded, both mom and dad were getting treatments for their cancers. That summer, dad developed a brain tumor from the melanoma. A successful surgery in July removed the tumor, giving us a brief period of hope.

A cure was not to be found, however, as dad soon developed another brain tumor. With her heart broken, mom said "good-bye" to dad on Nov. 7, 1989.

Now, in addition to the sadness of losing dad, mom and I could no longer depend on him to help support us. We got some Social Security survivor benefits that - combined with mom's work at the variety store - provided our income.

As mom did the best she could, while continuing to try to keep her own cancer in check, I completed sixth grade in June 1990. We spent much of that summer trying to clean up our house from damage sustained in the June 14 flood.

When I went to school for seventh grade that fall, I remember mom helping me prepare as she always had. She was always so proud of me. Unbeknownst to me, however, as 1990 came to a close, mom's cancer was progressing at a fairly rapid rate. Soon, her physical condition made it impossible for her to continue working.

By February 1991, mom's disease debilitated her to the point that she could no longer walk on her own. While mom went to the hospital, I took turns staying with various relatives.

Completely unprepared to deal with any of this, especially at such a young age, I began to struggle in school. I also had a hard time adjusting to staying with my relatives, as none of us were equipped to deal with this tragic situation.

My wonderful mom went to go live with Jesus on April 26, 1991. Shortly after turning 13, I was an orphaned, only child.

Unable to adjust or deal with any of this, I had a hard time getting along with my relatives. They all tried to help me, but I was so hurt and confused that I just thought I needed to be somewhere else. In the fall of 1991, immediately prior to starting eighth grade, I decided to try out my first foster home.

The first foster home featured a revolving door of boys, most of whom were older than me. I never had any problems there, but it was quite an adventure. There were kids of all ages and backgrounds coming and going on a regular basis.

On Jan. 2, 1992, I moved into my second foster home. Even though it was just across town, the second home was much different than the first. In the 18 months I lived there, only one other foster child shared the home with me.

Because of the tremendous trauma I had endured, I continued to struggle in school and in social situations. In June 1993, following my freshman year of high school, I moved to a third foster home. Everyone I met along the way in foster care was nice, but they didn't know how to help me.

At the new foster home, where I would stay until after graduating from high school in summer 1996, I found another group of caring people who did the best they could to help me.

Eventually, after floundering with multiple fast food jobs for a couple of years, I began attending Belmont Technical College in fall 1998. As an elementary school student with two healthy parents, I had always performed well in school. However, from the middle of seventh grade to the end of high school, I struggled with academics.

Nevertheless, I began doing fairly well at Belmont. I took a variety of classes, as I really was not sure what I would try to do for a career. I performed well enough at Belmont to transfer to Ohio University Eastern. I eventually graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in specialized studies, with a focus on public affairs, in 2003.

In reflecting on my journey over the past 32 years from those days when dad worked at the coal mine, I see how much the area has changed. Whereas in 1982, coal mines, steel mills and Ormet were all flourishing, all these industries have seen their employment numbers drop dramatically. While the Marcellus and Utica shale boom offers some hope, it seems unlikely these operations will ever replace the thousands of blue-collar jobs our area has lost since I kissed my daddy on his way to work all those years ago.

Life can change in an instant.

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