Old Greenwich non-profit: RAMP tackles poverty in Appalachia

When siblings Sarah and Tyler Chapman of Martin County, Ky., were first introduced to RAMP, a Greenwich non-profit organization working to end poverty in rural Appalachia, it was a means of finding their next meal on weekends through the Backpack Snacks program.

But after a devastating tornado hit their home in March, RAMP became a virtual lifesaver.

According to Sarah, an 18-year-old honors student, the twister struck around 7 p.m. when she noticed a heavy doghouse fly across her yard, then felt her home begin to shake. While she and her father huddled in the bathroom, wedged between the toilet and the wall, their trailer was picked up and tossed 10 feet from its foundation. As the trailer landed, it split in two, leaving their home in ruins, she said.

When Sarah called her brother Tyler, then a freshman at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., he refused to believe the news. “I said, ‘Sarah don’t joke about that’,” he recalled. But when he and his college roommate, Chaz Maynard, made their way into Martin County a few hours later, the “joke” was over.

The entire county was out of power and as he neared his home, Tyler was forced to exit the car and wade through debris on foot to get to the trailer, he explained.

A week later, Amy Guerrieri, a Riverside resident and co-owner of Arcadia Cafe and the Upper Crust Bagel Company, who founded RAMP in 2009, found Sarah and Tyler still living in the soaking wet trailer, surrounded by shattered glass. Ms. Guerrieri, who had already formed a bond with Sarah and Tyler’s twin brother Taylor through RAMP programs, refused to leave until the family had a suitable place to stay, she said. The structure could have “toppled at any time” so she knew she had to act fast.

The incident prompted the launch of RAMP’s Emergency Response program, which provides basic needs to families in the wake of natural disasters. Through the program, Sarah, Tyler and Taylor were provided with a completely refurbished trailer, where they now live on their own.

“We really wanted to help them and say, ‘Take a breath for a minute’,” Ms. Guerrieri said. Instead of focusing on how to make enough money to get their next meal, Ms. Guerrieri wanted the siblings to focus on their education.

Nevertheless, Sarah and Tyler have been reluctant to ask for help. Tyler recently pawned his guitar in order to by food, which was unnecessary, explained Ms. Guerrieri, who plans to buy the guitar back for him when she returns to Martin County in a few weeks.

“It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” as the RAMP slogan goes, Ms. Guerrieri told them. Still, Sarah and Tyler did not feel worthy of RAMP’s help. After the tornado hit, Ms. Guerrieri was astounded to hear Sarah ask, “Why me” when so many others in the county are in need?

“Everyone deserves to be a kid,” Ms. Guerrieri said.

Unfortunately for the Chapman siblings, they did not experience much of a childhood until RAMP came into the picture.

When they were nine and 10 years old, Sarah and Tyler’s mother was injured in a work accident, prompting an addiction to painkillers that has since landed her in prison. “She stopped being a mom,” Sarah explained.

And although their father has always done his best to provide for his children and continuously stresses the importance of education, he could never quite provide the stability Sarah and Tyler needed growing up, Ms. Guerrieri explained. “I just felt like these kids just needed a break.”

Since providing the Chapmans with a suitable trailer, while their father stays with various friends around the county, the improvements in Sarah and Tyler’s demeanor are clear, Ms. Guerrieri said.

Sarah, who calls herself “the worrier of the family” has become braver, Ms. Guerrieri explained. At 18 and 19 years old, Sarah and Tyler are finally experiencing some of the childhood that was stripped from them at a very young age, she added.

Apart from RAMP, Ms. Guerrieri personally helped improve the Chapmans’ quality of life last week after inviting Sarah and Tyler, as well as Tyler’s roommate Chaz, to stay in her home and enjoy a vacation in Greenwich for nearly a week.

The native Kentuckians’ experience in town was eye opening, to say the least.

“Everything here is a first for us,” Tyler said. Whether it was their first-ever trip to the beach, a day sightseeing in New York City or their introduction to bagel shops, the trio was mesmerized at every turn.

“This is the vacation of a lifetime,” Sarah commented. One of the best parts of the trip was cooking dinner with the family each night and laughing around the dinner table, she added.

“They’re so respectful and so grateful,” Ms. Guerrieri said. And, as a bonus, Sarah and Tyler have taught her own children to be grateful for the luxuries they take for granted.

In fact, most children in town would benefit from observing poverty-stricken locales, which is why Ms. Guerrieri plans to take local youth on a mission to Martin County next month, she explained.

According to Ms. Guerrieri, much of RAMP’s significance stems from the fact that it addresses poverty in the United States. While many organizations tackle poverty in places like Africa, she said, it’s important to help those in our own back yard. She formed the organization after news reports on poverty in America moved her.

RAMP’s mission is to provide basic needs for impoverished Appalachians, but that alone will not make a significant change, Ms. Guerrieri said. The organization is working hard to improve economic development and bring business back to places like Martin County, which has a poverty rate of 45%.

In the fall, the organization will work with high school seniors in Martin County, most of whom will not have the chance to go to college, to further their opportunities. The students will be asked to devise business plans and proposals. The best proposal will be chosen and if that student maintains good grades, he or she will be given a micro loan to start a business in the county, Ms. Guerrieri explained.

As for Sarah and Tyler, college continues to be their number one priority. Tyler will continue his education at Alice Lloyd while Sarah plans to study business and psychology in the future, she said.

The opportunity to focus more on their future and less on making enough money to scrape by has been vital.

“It’s nice to be able to breathe,” Sarah explained.

Tyler agreed, saying, “The best feeling about [RAMP’s help] is the security” and the chance to focus on something other than bills.

Although Sarah and Tyler’s story is difficult for many people to digest, “it’s so important to get the word out there” about the number of starving children in the country and the ways in which RAMP can assist them, Ms. Guerrieri said. “Many people don’t know how much hunger is out there” and awareness is the first step towards alleviating it.

The media is what will continue to help RAMP find the organizational partnerships and individual donors that fund the approximately $300,000 per year organization, Ms. Guerrieri said, but allowing RAMP beneficiaries to be exploited will never happen.

“I love these people,” she said. “These people are part of my family.”


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