Heart of Appalachia

The veteran runner – firm, fit and 65 – enjoyed his country runs near LaFayettte, Ind., free from phones, people and city distractions. Savoring the crisp, spring air, he initially shrugged off the tingly sensation in his left arm. He debated running to his car or running off the feeling. When sweaty hands ensued, followed by lightheadedness, he knew he was in trouble. He barely made it to the doctor’s office and was quickly transported to the hospital. They told him: ‘You’re going to need the biggest operation of your life: open heart/quintuple bypass surgery.

Jeff Hagen was near death. And survived. It was an eye-opener. 

“I don’t know how many days I have left on this Earth, but I realized at that moment, I wanted to use my God-given skills, talents and experiences to help others.”

Triple Threat

Jeff Hagen ’68 (art education) retired in 2000, after enjoying a successful 32-year career teaching K-12 and college students; thriving as an artist whose work juried regionally and nationally and is in U.S. and European art collections; and succeeding as an award-winning author with more than eight books to his credit.

“I’m fortunate I can still paint, draw and write,” said the 73-year-old Hagen. “My purpose now is to be of service.”

At his church, he learned about mission work in Hazard, Ky., in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. While they typically did Habitat for Humanity work, he asked the mission representative, “What else do you need?”

“Do you know an art teacher?” she asked.

Needless to say, Hagen – teacher/author/ artist – joined the summer 2011 mission team, just months after his near-death experience.

“I taught art to all grades at Cordia School in Hazard. I felt very connected with them, and the kids seemed to like what I was doing,” Hagen said. “I took several trips with the church, then decided I didn’t need a mission team to go there.”

He’s amassed nearly 20 solo trips to the impoverished heart of Appalachia, including six visits in 2017; all on his own dime. Cited as one of the poorest regions in the country, usnews.com reports Kentucky as having the fourth highest poverty rate in the U.S., with 18.5 percent of the state’s population living below the poverty line. (September 26, 2017, U.S. Census Bureau)

It’s a grim, hard place. The decimation of the coal industry breeds hopelessness. The prevalence of work-related mining injuries fuels a spiraling epidemic of addiction. The perpetual cycle of free handouts creates dependence on a system that diminishes selfworth. People don’t leave, Hagen said. And school resources for subjects like art are nil.

One educator teaches art to 240+ K-12 kids for 50 minutes one day a week. So, when Hagen started coming to town, “we got lucky,” said Deanna Jacobs, reading and language arts teacher for grades five through nine. “He’s been here three or four times this fall, and he’s able to do extended activities they wouldn’t get to do otherwise.”

Hagen has recruited half a dozen art distributors to donate thousands of dollars in art supplies; taught 100+ students in grades K-12; and developed more than a dozen art projects to stretch students’ imaginations.

“When Mr. Hagen comes down, we know they’re going to do something pretty special they will be able to take with them. He has a way of making these kids feel like they’re artists,” Jacobs said.

But it’s not about the numbers.

“Art builds self-esteem and confidence,” Hagen said. “I want to take their enthusiasm for art and build valuable life skills, inspire their inner drive, and teach them that they can achieve what they set out to do. That’s at the heart of Candy ‘Appal’ Tees.”

Candy ‘Appal’ Tees

Tie-dying T-shirts was Hagen’s lesson plan for the September 2017 trip to Appalachia. He’s never quite sure if the kids will enjoy the project or how the art will turn out, but this project was a smashing success.

“I never expected what came out of it: a celebration of diversity,” Hagen said. “Each kid has their unique design, which they really liked. They didn’t want their neighbor’s shirt; they didn’t think someone did better than they did. And I told them, ‘That’s much like your personality. You have gifts your neighbor doesn’t have. Be proud of that. Don’t compare yourself to anyone.’”

A leap of faith took the project a step further. Create and sell the shirts. Design handpainted watercolor labels in the shape of hearts, which are signed by the students and pinned on the sleeve. “Wearing their hearts on their sleeves shows their personality and creative spirit,” Hagen said.

Thus, was born Candy ‘Appal’ Tees.

The Candy ‘Appal’ Tees Facebook page reads: “We are a group of 6th grade girls that have been BFF’s since kindergarten. We are Lauren, Mackenzie, Haleigh, and Graci! Mr. Jeff Hagen, an artist from Indiana, came to our classroom and did a tie-dye T-shirt project with our class. We enjoyed this project so much that we decided to turn it into a business. All money raised from the sale of our shirts will be given to the school to help purchase art supplies.”

Hagen promptly secured a grant to buy 60 T-shirts and received donations from Rit Dye for the color. He returned in November for three days to replicate the initial tie-dye project.

“It’s not just an art project, but a means for these kids to gain self-worth and self-esteem,” he said.

Mackenzie Allen said, “We made all kinds of cool designs. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but you have to take your time and do a good job.”

With Jacobs’ help, the girls are handling inventory, records and shipping. They have the potential to raise $1,200. So far they’ve sold 20 shirts.

“It’s fun to see all the people who want to buy from us,” Lauren Jacobs said. “We’ve sold to people from North Dakota, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey and Kentucky.”

The students presented Candy ‘Appal’ Tees at the Student Technology Leadership Program entrepreneurial competition in December. They won the region and will advance to the state competition in March.

“It makes me feel good that we have made money for art supplies,” Haleigh Gayhart said.

Hagen knows he’s impacting these kids by introducing art. He may also be inspiring future artists or entrepreneurs. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Gracie Melton said, “I want to be an artist. I want to teach like Mr. Hagen.”

Hagen is humbled to be making a difference one student at a time.

“I think what we’re doing with Candy ‘Appal’ Tees could perpetuate in many positive ways,” Hagen said.

Like the famous quote, ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,’ Hagen is building these kids up in ways for them to create a better future for themselves.

This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Spring 2018.

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