By David Bauder
“It’s the accent I love. It’s the music that I grew up with. It’s part of home to me.”
The story hits home for the veteran newswoman.
NEW YORK — Diane Sawyer felt a personal connection in reporting her latest documentary on American children living in poverty.
Born in southern Kentucky, raised in Louisville, Sawyer is certain her ancestors once made it over the hills of central Appalachia. She tells the often harrowing stories of families in that region trying to make it in “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.” It airs Friday at 10 p.m. on ABC.
“It’s the accent I love,” she said. “It’s the music that I grew up with. It’s part of home to me.”
Ancestry aside, these Kentucky families may have had reason to be suspicious of a wealthy New York journalist wanting to hear their stories. Once you establish you’re not there to mock them, that you recognize the pride in their lineage, people would open up, she said.
The documentary focuses on four stories, including high school football star Shawn Grim, who lives out of his car and dreams of getting away. Other children deal with drug-addicted parents and a future of work in dangerous coal mines.
The stories are a framework to illustrate problems in the community, from the rise in illegal prescription drug dealing to the widespread use of a soft drink that is rotting teeth. Children there face few options: work at Wal-Mart or fast-food restaurants, dealing drugs or a life in the mines among them.
“Very few people make their way up into the hills and the hollows and the shadows to look at these lives,” Sawyer said. “It’s not easy to get there.”
Grim’s story is depressing. He works hard to develop his football talent and becomes the first in his family to graduate high school, but he quits four months into college despite his athletic scholarship. Sawyer said he’s now trying to find work in Tennessee and she hopes someone sees the documentary and takes a chance on him.
When Sawyer did a similar documentary on urban poverty in Camden, N.J., there was an outpouring of support for the children who were featured.
She thinks the children in Appalachia face a tougher future than the ones she met in Camden.
“I think you can argue that the history of the hills and the isolation of the hills is an added mountain to climb,” she said. “As they say, to go to Cincinnati, it’s like going to Istanbul. I think the feeling that they are not respected or valued — you can introduce them in sitcoms, you can introduce them as jokes — is also a psychological weight that a lot of people carry.”
Sawyer, who estimates that she and the staff drove some 14,000 miles in the two years spent to make the documentary, said she likes the outlet provided by these projects. She’s more than 10 years into a gig as “Good Morning America” host that she initially took on a fill-in basis for a few months.
Not many people in network TV get the chance to make these kind of documentaries, she said.
“I consider it a great gift from ABC that I get to do these,” she said, “and there are more coming.”