1 of 4
John Raby, Associated Press
In a Wednesday, May 13, 2015 photo, Mount View High School students Toni Campbell, left, and Rashawn Brooks discuss a student mentoring program at Mount View High School in Welch, W.Va. As part of the mentoring program, 18 students at two high schools in impoverished McDowell County visited college campuses, job sites and met members of Congress over the past year. Seventeen of the students will graduate with their classmates next month.

BRADSHAW, W.Va. — Rayven Bailey and Emmilea Hatfield have their futures all mapped out after high school: get a college degree and come home to struggling McDowell County to try to make life a little less rough for the next generation.

The teens have seen plenty of their own challenges and are determined not to be a part of same old routine in a county that once was the nation's highest producer of coal.

For most kids here, it's either forget about going to college, or graduate and leave to find work anywhere else it's available.

Not for Bailey and Hatfield, who want to return and give back strong.

The two were among 18 high schoolers picked a year ago to participate in a mentoring program as part of Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private project led by the American Federation of Teachers that aims to improve opportunities in the county.

Seventeen seniors will graduate with their classmates next month at Mount View High in Welch and River View High in Bradshaw. The other participant is a junior.

They are a mix of cheerleaders, athletes, drama performers, accomplished scholars and ordinary students. Some have had unimaginably rough lives in broken homes. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.

They are the first wave in the three-year Broader Horizons program funded by a $300,000 grant from AT&T, one of more than 120 partners in Reconnecting McDowell.

Debbie Elmore, an AFT-West Virginia staff member and one of the Broader Horizons mentors, said the program convinced some of the students that college is the right choice.

Nearly all the students took their first plane trip last summer to Washington, D.C., where they visited college campuses, job sites and met members of Congress. Each student was assigned a mentor to regularly discuss school, life issues and choices. The students were recommended by school counselors for their motivation to overcome their own challenges.

A half-century removed from its heyday as the king of coal, most of the attention given to mountainous McDowell County on West Virginia's southern tip is on the negative side.

After U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations here in 2003, 23 percent of McDowell County's population left because there was no other job industry to rely on. Economic growth is tough in an area with very little flat land and no four-lane highway.

McDowell County has the state's highest unemployment at 15.4 percent. More than a third of its 20,000 residents live in poverty.

Unhealthy habits are rampant, too. There's high alcohol consumption, and McDowell County has the nation's highest death rate for prescription drug overdoses.

The misery has taken a toll on education.

County schools superintendent Nelson Spencer has said the county's high truancy rate is a byproduct of poverty and drug abuse. More than 1 in 10 McDowell County students in grades 7 through 12 drop out of school and only about a fourth of the county's high school graduates go on to college.

Bailey plans to return with an elementary education degree. Hatfield aims to become an elementary school teacher or go into social work.

Hatfield has bounced from home to home and is now living with a friend's grandmother. She said her parents abused drugs and alcohol and had no jobs.

"I am considered one of those poor unfortunate souls," she said with a smile.

Neither of her parents went to college. "So I looked at them and saw where their life was because they didn't really care about their education, and I decided that I wanted to be the complete opposite of them," she said.

Bailey's parents split up when she was 7. She is seven month's pregnant and admits being nervous and scared, but it won't hamper her college plans.

She wants her children to enjoy the outdoors in McDowell County as much as she did as a child.

"There are kids here that have parents that have drug habits and they don't have anybody to really look up to," Bailey said. "So I'd like to be that person for them."