Better Days Ahead


The Mullins family have fun while attempting to see a partial solar eclipse. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the view of the sun during the late afternoon.

As they do many weekends, the Mullins family of Berea load camera bags, clothes and camping gear into their car. This time their destination is Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, where Nick Mullins will speak out against mountaintop removal. The summer before, the family traveled the eastern United States speaking out against the practice.

Until a few years ago, Nick, 35, was a fourth-generation coal miner in Virginia. He remembers as a boy watching as coal companies stripped away the mountain above his family's home in Clintwood, Virginia. As an adult, he went to work mining coal underground.

With the increasing concern about the negative impact of mountaintop removal and the unsafe practices he was observing at underground mines, Nick began to question how he was supporting his family.

“There were a lot of nights where I stared at the door and I didn't want to go to work," Nick says. "I felt ashamed for the years that I wanted to be a miner so bad.”

He also did not want his son to grow up to be a fifth-generation coal miner.

But Nick continued to work as a miner until after his family's home burned to the ground in July 2010. The fire was the spark that ignited change. Nick and his wife, Rusti, decided to move to Berea because of the community's focus on sustainability and preserving Appalachia.

With the family's move to a a four-acre plot of land just west of Berea, Appalachia found an unlikely hero in Nick.

Nick and Rusti applied to and were accepted to Berea College where Nick majors in communications with a minor in sustainability and environmental studies. Rusti is studying history. Nick was elected president of Bereans for Appalachia, a student group working to better the region. Their two children, Daniel, 12, and Alex, 9, settled into school.

Nick and Rusti are doing everything they can to be self-sustaining in their daily lives, including heating with wood obtained from a tree-removal service, collecting rain water and composting.

Ultimately, their goal is to heal Appalachia and make it a better place for their children.

The family has to wake up at 6 each morning to get everyone ready for school. Rusti and Nick take turns making breakfast. They try to buy locally made products and reuse the packaging or bottles as much as possible.

Nick uses paper as kindling for the fire while giving his son Daniel bedtime instructions.

Rusti shows Daniel how to multiply negative and positive numbers as he works on his homework assignment. The family often spends time at Frost Cottage, a haven for nontraditional and international Berea College students.

Rusti and co-worker Stephen Brice harvest sweet potatoes before an oncoming frost. Rusti and Stephen work on the Berea College farm as a part of their work contracts with the school. Berea is one of the few colleges where students work various jobs for the school and attend classes for free.

Nick and Rusti meet each other after a long week of classes. The Mullins family was preparing to go to the Kayford Mountains in West Virginia for the Mountain Justice Workshop.

Nick and Rusti have a busy schedule at Berea College, but luckily their daughter, Alex, gets off the bus right outside of the Appalachian Center on campus.

Nick teaches Alex how to fire a gun. Alex and her brother, Daniel, were blasting holes in a t-shirt for Daniel's Halloween costume.

Alex loves to listen to stories her dad tells about his time as a coal miner and the time he spent back in Clintwood, Va. The Mullins family travels around the country advocating against mountaintop removal.

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