By Jami Gibson

I recently watched the documentary Rich Hill, a 2014 Sundance Film Festival award-winning film that depicts the lives of three teenage boys and their families living in rural Missouri. The town, Rich Hill, was once a thriving coal-mining town in the late 1800s, but through the generations has fallen into decline with nearly 27% of its approximately 1,400 residents living in poverty.

In the film, we are first introduced to 13-year-old Andrew. He, his sister, and his parents have moved nearly a dozen times as his dad struggles to find work. Andrew’s parents both suffer from illness, and in his mother’s case, her medication leaves her bedridden for days at a time. Their house has no hot water. Like his father, Andrew finds random work to pay for the things he needs, like gear for football.

Next, we meet Appachey (Pach). He loves art and skateboarding, but his behavioral and mental health issues have left him suspended from school and in and out of the Youth Services facility in Rich Hill. He lives with his siblings and single mother as his dad abandoned their family years ago. It’s clear that Pach’s mother is exhausted and stressed. She talks about how she went from being a child to being married with her own child at 17 years old, leaving no room for her to have hopes and dreams for her life.

Last, Harley is a 15-year-old living with his grandmother. His mother is in prison, and he struggles with mental health issues which do not seem to be responding to medication. Due to this, he has a hard time going to school and making it through the whole day, which leads to him being expelled for the semester.

Some common themes seen throughout the film are the lack of opportunity and lack of hope. Both parents and kids alike struggle to find work/income, cope with mental health and physical issues, and live without access to quality counseling and medical services. Despite being filmed in Rich Hill, this documentary could have been the story of numerous communities around the U.S. which see the same conditions.

Disinvestment from our communities over time leaves the town not only in physical despair, but also economic despair as no jobs equal no tax base, and no incentive for companies or people to move into the area. Eventually, even the local businesses serving the community (i.e. shops, restaurants, etc) leave the area. This film is an affirmation of the importance of economic development. It can make or break an area. It can also bring opportunity and hope to a town and its residents. What you do matters!