Teenage siblings in Big Laurel become community heroes for helping during recent winter storm

Published 10:27 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

By Jennifer McDaniels

For The Enterprise

Most young people took to their four wheelers during Harlan County’s recent winter storm to do what most young people do when the season’s first measurable snowfall transforms the rolling, Appalachian landscape into a wintry, wild tundra of thrills. There’s been plenty of spinning snow on four wheelers and trekking up frozen hillsides by young people who had plenty of time to enjoy the great outdoors during their time off from school. 

However, two teenage siblings from the remote Pine Mountain community of Big Laurel took advantage of having access to their parents’ side-by-side to help their neighbors stranded by the snowstorm and experiencing prolonged water outages.

Brandon Farley, 16, and his sister, Shelby, 15, stayed busy for several days loading up cases of bottled water at Turner Grocery Store to take to their neighbors. The water had been dispersed by the county government as part of emergency relief efforts and the Farleys weren’t recruited to help, they volunteered. The brother and sister simply saw the need when they were able to venture out to the store for supplies and went straight to work making sure that the stranded and shut-ins in their community had water. 

Drew Howard, who helps Turner Grocery owners Ann Epperson and her daughter, Megan Falce, run the country store, said the Farley siblings had been inspirational in their selfless efforts, giving testament to the good-hearted, helpful, “salt-of-the-Earth-type people” for which Pine Mountain is known.

“We’ve had some pretty tough luck the past couple weeks with the weather, but we’re just going to battle through until it’s all over,” Howard said. “The people here are tough and resilient, and they know how to get through hard times and struggles. That’s what sets us apart and makes us unique on this side of the mountain — no power, no water, no problem! We’ll make it no matter what the circumstances are.”

He said Brandon and Shelby were fine examples of the roll-up-your-sleeves and pitch-in-and-help fortitude that has long made Pine Mountain people survivors, and that it was good to see that trait evident in the community of Big Laurel’s younger generation.

“It has been really touching to see these siblings brave the snow and cold temperatures to check on our residents and deliver water,” Howard said. “Kids like Brandon and Shelby are rare these days. So, I love to see it. They have very bright futures with their good hearts and work ethic, and I know they will grow up and be outstanding adults if they continue like they are. I’m very proud of them and their spirit of community service, and everyone else is, too. So many people have stopped by the store and bragged on them.”

Howard said it was exceptionally inspirational how the Farley siblings volunteered long hours during the winter storm to help their community, especially since their own father, Oakie, is very sick and paralyzed. He said they have been coming to the store every day and helping him load the crates of water for people who come out to pick them up, then they venture out on their side-by-side to head up the creeks and hollows to deliver the water to those who can’t get out.

“They have a list of community members who they deliver to each day from Big Laurel to KY 510,” Howard said. I think it is awesome what they have been doing. I tell them each day they are greatly appreciated and everyone, here, is grateful for what they are doing. They are a light to our community.”

Brandon and Shelby are both students at Harlan County High School. They grew up in the Pine Mountain area, but also had another home on the lake in Bean Station, Tenn. Their family moved back to Pine Mountain permanently four years ago when their father became sick.

“The people over here have always helped us out and this is our way of giving back,” said Shelby Farley. “The people thanked us. Some offered us money and one person made us take money, but we didn’t do it for money. The whole community pitched in and helped everyone that they could. We all worked hard over here to do what needed to be done, so I believe everyone over here needs to be recognized — not just us.”

After the snow fell and the cold temperatures set in, several in the Big Laurel community became stranded. Brandon Farley said those who were able to get out started immediately checking on their snowed-in neighbors.

“Some went and got groceries for everyone who needed them, and everyone pitched in and done whatever they could to make sure everyone was taken care of,” he said. “I thought it was pretty nice to help because there were people who couldn’t get out and we had the side-by-side and could get out. We were glad to be able to help others because others always step up and help us when we need it. 

“It was cold out, but we had heat in the side-by-side. No, we were not concerned, because people were looking out for us, too. We just delivered water to those who needed it. The ones we didn’t know personally, someone along the way would tell us where each one lived.”

The siblings’ mother, Donna Farley, said she and her husband were proud of their children for their interest and determination in helping their community during a weather-related crisis. She said what her children did, however, was reflective of the entire community’s willingness to help during challenging times.

“It’s just the way the people over here are,” Donna Farley said. “Everyone over here needs to be praised for pitching in and helping out. We are truly blessed over here with loving and caring people. Everyone over here did all they could do to help others, not just us.”

While the family is humble, Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley said the siblings deserved recognition for their good deeds. That is why Mosley took to social media to publicly brag about the siblings, resulting in a huge following joining in to praise the teenagers. 

Mosley said the siblings were not only an inspiration to many, but to him, personally, as well. The county leader said he was having a bad day when he and his son, Sebastian, drove across Pine Mountain to help deliver bottled water to the community because of the many water outages due to the recent winter storm was weighing heavy on him. Mosley said when he pulled up to Turner’s Grocery and heard about Brandon and Shelby his whole outlook changed.

“It warmed my heart,” he said. “I’m going to be honest, it was very uplifting to me, personally, because in times of crisis like we’ve experienced over the last couple of weeks with the winter storm, the cold, and frozen pipes, it’s been two weeks of crisis after crises, and it’s hard on everyone, and it weighs heavily on me. I was having a bad day, and when I found out what this brother and sister had been doing for their community, it really shifted my whole mood and perspective. There’s good people still left in this world and it gives hope for our future generation of people stepping up to help.”

There were water outages throughout Harlan County because of the winter storm, mostly in the Pine Mountain area as well as Baxter, Rosspoint, Putney, Wallins, Coldiron and Clover Fork. Mosley said  Big Laurel got hit exceptionally hard because the north side of Pine Mountain is always colder and saw more snow accumulation. Communities from Bledsoe to Big Laurel also experienced a power outage during the windstorm that hit just before the snow and frigid temperatures came, knocking out Black Mountain Utility District’s ability to pump water across Pine Mountain. 

When the winter storm hit there was a rapid change in temperatures afterwards. Mosley said it played havoc on the system’s pipes, causing waterline bursts to erupt almost non-stop. Most have had water restored in Harlan County, but Big Laurel is still enduring outages. Mosley said the widespread water outages were about the second or third worst winter-related crisis that has occurred in Harlan County since he has been in office.

“It’s bad. Anytime anybody is out of water, it’s bad,” Mosley said. “In 2015, we had 4,300 customers without water at one time. That’s when it got 10 and 15 below for like a week, and that’s when we had all those abandoned mine ruptures and mudslides, flooding, and snow that was around 15 inches. 2015 was worse, but the difference in 2015 and this winter storm is the way the temperature warmed back up so fast. Water utility people will tell you it’s not the freeze that gets you, it’s the thaw, and that was certainly the case in this situation. It went from 0 to 30, back down to 0, then up to 55 in 48 hours, so that fast thaw just gave us endless breaks.”

Mosley said he was appreciative of water utility workers and the county road crew for being out in the harsh elements to restore water. He also expressed appreciation to the state government for sending in four tractor trailer-loads of bottled water to supply the people.

Even though many communities in Harlan County have had to come together and depend on one another during the extended water outages, the folks in Big Laurel say they feel confident about their well-being because of the efforts exhibited by those like Brandon and Shelby. Donna Farley said she was extremely proud of her children.

“Shelby and Brandon are blessings to us,” their mother said. “They help out so much with their dad, who is paralyzed. They enjoy riding their side-by-sides. Shelby enjoys reading and playing with her animals. Brandon enjoys playing the guitar and playing ball. Both children are always willing and ready to help anyone. While they were out in the side-by-side delivering water, they were in an enclosed space with heat. So, they were not cold, and people along the way messaged me to let me know where they were at all times.”

Howard said the Big Laurel community was not only grateful for the siblings, but for the earnest efforts of Mosley and the county government in providing assistance. Howard said Harlan County District 1 Magistrate Paul Caldwell has called him daily since the water has been off, checking on the community residents, and that he had worked closely with the magistrate and the county emergency management crew in making sure plenty of water was available for the people.

“I have been very busy, between running the store and helping with the water, but I love it, and I’m very honored I can serve my community and help our people here,” Howard said. “This store has always been charitable and willing to help in times of need since it has been in business over the last 40 years. Abby, who was Anne’s late sister who previously ran the store, was always great about helping our community and going above and beyond for our people here, and I have just tried to do my best to follow in her footsteps. Ann and her daughter, Megan, are also very giving and always help others here in our community, as well. We all try to give back, especially in times of need.”