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Former teacher's nonprofit aims to educate Catholics about rural poverty

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Ruth Kulick grew up in Arlington and was a theater major in college; her high school sweetheart, John, was an art history major.


We have this hidden blindness to our own poor.” Ruth Kulick

“We were two fairly unemployable people,” she said. She liked building theater sets, so she became a shop teacher, while John taught art.


They got married and found teaching jobs near Madison, a small rural town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah National Park.


“We stayed here because we just love it,” said Kulick. They’ve lived a mile off of Route 29 for more than 40 years, raising four children. They now have 14 grandchildren, and still enjoy “the lovely fun of having animals” — especially chickens.


Many Northern Virginians flock to Madison County to hike, visit area wineries or just drink in the idyllic scenery of the countryside around the Blue Ridge. But they may not know that amid the pastoral beauty, many rural families are barely eking out a living.


When Kulick first moved to the area, “I had never in my life seen that kind of poverty,” she said, citing three interconnected issues: lack of transportation, lack of housing and lack of job opportunities. “The area is so pretty, but if you’re not a trained teacher, accountant, attorney, dentist or pharmacist, there are just not that many places to get jobs, and there’s no public transportation.” Low-paying part-time jobs can be found 20 or 30 miles away in Culpeper or Charlottesville, but with the cost of gas and car upkeep, the economics often don’t add up.


“You’d make more money if you just got unemployment. It’s a serious conundrum,” Kulick said.


The poverty rate in rural Virginia is 16 percent, compared with about 9 percent in urban areas; according to federal statistics, more than 17 percent of the rural population has not completed high school. When she taught shop, many of the 13- and 14-year-old boys in her classes were functionally illiterate, familiar with tools but unable to read instruction manuals. With no jobs nearby, their parents became cross-country truckers, leaving the children alone for long periods.


“These were realities I didn’t know existed,” she said, adding that Virginia’s rural poor are often undercounted because a lot of families live up in the hills. Others rent substandard trailers “that should be condemned.”


Kulick, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in Madison since it was founded in 1977, became an advocate for her new neighbors, traveling to churches in Arlington and Fairfax counties to speak on Sundays after Mass to build connections and seek donations. She works closely with her parish, which does its own outreach, and with the Madison Emergency Services Association, a small local nonprofit that runs a food pantry and thrift shop.


Kulick knows Catholics in Northern Virginia are generous, raising tens of thousands of dollars a year for global appeals — but many have no idea of the poverty that exists within their own diocese, just two hours away. “We have this hidden blindness to our own poor,” she said.


Her four children, three of whom are alumni of Christendom College in Front Royal, realized that technology could go a long way to help in Kulick’s mission. They recently created a nonprofit called Catholic Outreach for Rural Virginia, or CORV, and built an informational website to help educate people about rural poverty. A “Donate Now” button makes it easy to make tax-deductible online contributions.


The website also promotes donation drives held throughout the year to provide assistance with food and other needs. One collection focuses on personal care and hygiene supplies, which can’t be bought with food stamps. Another, coming up in August, collects children’s backpacks and school supplies. A drive in December solicits Christmas gifts for local children and seniors. Donations are accepted for gas cards and other transportation assistance all year long.


Northern Virginia has poverty, but in rural areas “it’s severe, so people just wanted to help,” said Father Dennis W. Kleinmann, pastor of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, one of the parishes Kulick has visited. In the past six years, St. Veronica’s Knights of Columbus Council has collected more than 10 tons of diapers, deodorant and other hygiene items, as well as cash donations and gift cards.


In late June, St. Veronica also sent 22 young people to Madison to help at the nursing home and food pantry and to work on small construction projects. “We’re not the wealthiest parish in the world, but charity demands we try to be generous,” Father Kleinmann said.


St. Agnes Church in Arlington and St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield also have supported Madison for many years, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester is getting involved in some new projects. Diocesan Catholic Charities’ St. Lucy Food Project provides food support. “We have a lifeline called Route 29 to Northern Virginia,” Kulick said.


She hopes the CORV website will help spread the word and get more parishes to focus on the issue of rural poverty — maybe even inspire Catholic entrepreneurs to get together to brainstorm creative ideas to address the rural housing crisis and create new jobs.


“You can’t ask people to help themselves when they have no tools,” she said.


Find out more


Go to corvhelp.org or call 540/660-9235


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021