They’re wearing sweatshirts back in Minnesota, but here in Tennessee we’re dealing with a heat index that’s topping 100 degrees.

The run to Ridgely, Tennessee was along the Mississippi River floodplain – pancake flat and flanked by agricultural fields. Fewer fields of soybeans and corn now. More and more fields of cotton.

Victoria ran into town, finishing just outside the Senior Center on Main Street. Downtown Ridgely looks like many of the small communities we’ve seen along the river, empty storefronts and old buildings being torn down.

We were scheduled to meet Connie at the Senior Center, but she had a family emergency to attend to and was out of town. Melinda was there to receive us in her place. Lunch was over and the place was clearing out, but we connected with Lindsey from the Lake County Journal. She became our Ridgely tour guide for the next couple of hours.

Lindsey is 27 and lives in Martin. She’s from Carroll County, Tennessee originally and still has family there. Her first newspaper job was closer to home (where her neighbors were cows), and now she’s been promoted to editor in Lake County. It’s a two-person operation and she does it all – delivering papers, too. She might never get home again.

Lindsey led us to the Lara Kendall Elementary School where we were scheduled to meet with a social studies class. It turns out that we’d be presenting to the entire middle school. Such a great opportunity.

Coach—or Principal—Ayers helped us get set up, and then he proceeded to shoot hoops with some of the middle school kids while waiting for the assembly to begin. As Coach brought the room to a hush and introduced me and Tom, I started to speak… and likely I said all the wrong things for this particular audience! Nevertheless, they eventually warmed up as we listened to the silence and realized they might be a swirl with questions for us, which they indeed were! One after another, they asked questions about our trek, whether we ever get to shower or why are we doing this at all…. So many good and fun questions.

A few kids came up to us after the assembly was over to offer further advice about eating fried watermelon and lobster rolls. Always welcome. And we got a few great pictures as well.

Coach/Principal Ayers escorted us out, but before we could leave, his wife handed us a book, The Legend of Zoey, written by a native person about how the celebrated lake got its name. One more generosity to be grateful for.

So many unexpected voices today… oh! and I shouldn’t forget to say, Coach Ayers made the most wonderful proclamation before he let the students out, that they will all have to work on writing a response to our postcard which he will provide postage for—our postcard that asks, “Why do you make this place home?” And handed out to all the students.

We are eagerly awaiting that shipment!

After our time at the school, we headed back toward the town center to meet up with Kristy Choate, the local library manager. She had assembled quite a group from the community to meet with us—a former Mayor, a journalist and oil man, a former state trooper, the pastor of the Methodist congregation, amongst others.

We had a lively discussion about the changes in Ridgely and Lake County over the years, as well as the challenges the community faces today, being the poorest in the state. A lot more study and understanding is called for when you start hearing about “those people” moving into town and changing things. How “they” are working the system, and yet there’s no answer to the reality that the system is broken and even those “working” it are in need…

Much more work needed to know ALL the voices of these parts, but at least we are beginning to hear that they need to be heard.