Joel Brashear is a community banker and television producer in Hyden, KY, the town where he was born and raised. Recently, Hyden and Leslie County were named one of the worst places to live in America. After years spent working in news media and education, Joel knows full well that the region is not without its difficulties, but there is not place on Earth he would rather live.
“When I was younger, all I could think about was getting out of the mountains and off to ‘the city.’ So, when I was offered a scholarship to play football, I signed as fast as possible before they could change their mind. Of course, I was homesick and ready to come home after a week! Thankfully, my parents made me stay through that rough first month. But I never got over being homesick. Not fully.” Joel attended one of the most prestigious small schools in America, Georgetown College, where he studied Communications and Business Administration. After graduation, he returned home to his beloved mountains.
“I spent a year after college working as a professional actor in Lexington. And I gave considerable consideration to staying in that area or even moving off and following my dreams of being a performer. But the strong roots I planted in East Kentucky kept pulling me back home. My wife is from Leslie County and when we began dating, I knew it was time to come home.”
After moving home, Joel began work at WYMT-TV, the only network affiliated television station in East Kentucky. He was quickly promoted to direct the nightly news and was named Promotions Manager and Special Projects producer shortly thereafter. It was in this role that Joel began to find his voice and calling.
“Directing the news every day, I saw so many negative, awful things about and from our region: corruption, drug manufacturing & abuse, environmental disasters, health scares and so many more stories about how ‘bad’ this region was. Well, I didn’t believe that. And from this was the birth of From These Hills, my first television show.”
From These Hills was a monthly news magazine-styled show featuring a brighter look at the WYMT viewing area where only positive, uplifting stories were produced. But this was not Joel’s only achievement at WYMT. Spearheading specials and telethons for Hope in the Mountains, a women’s drug treatment center, tornado victim relief, the American Red Cross and Red Bird Mission, he also produced sporting events and news specials that brought innovative filmmaking techniques to East Kentucky television.
After almost a decade in television, Joel decided to tackle a new challenge: education. His grandmother, Mary Katherine Brashear, had been a remedial English teacher her entire life. But it was a life altering experience in Somerset, KY that led Joel to the classroom.
“I had been asked to lead the Filmmaking program for the Rogers Scholars and was blown away by the kids they were working with. Looking back, these were the single best students from each county in East Kentucky, so of course they would all be extraordinary. But working with them for two weeks that summer showed me that I could directly affect a lot of lives if I worked with them ‘hands on’ as opposed to them passively watching videos I had done on television.”
Joel began teaching at Leslie County High School in the early fall of 2010. He found his niche working with seniors who were about to enter the real world. “It was never easy. But it was, at times, rewarding,” he says of his experience in the classroom.
While teaching, Joel was a true teacher-leader: guiding the Senior Writing Portfolio initiative, developing a teacher training to integrate theatre games into course curriculum and working with five other teachers to present at the National Family Literacy Conference in 2012. In his short time in education, Joel found a greater passion for helping the children of East Kentucky. However, an opportunity arose in the summer of 2013 that Joel could not pass up.
“My father, Fred Brashear, came to me and said that he would like me to come and work with him at his bank. I would be doing Community Outreach and Business Development, two things I was already passionate about. Plus, part of my duties would be leading a Teach Kids to Save program, where I would see virtually every student in Leslie County and show them the benefits of proper budgeting. It was funny; I’ve been doing all of these jobs since college because I specifically did NOT want to be a banker. My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather have all be CEO at Hyden Citizens Bank, so I was determined to not go into the family business. But now that I’m here, it is more than a dream job. I absolutely love it.”
Joel has done much for the community of Hyden and Leslie County since taking this position at HCB: tens of thousands of dollars have been “reinvested” into the local community through charitable donations to schools, athletic teams, scholarships and civic organizations. Community events are offered free of charge to give children safe places to attend. Downtown Saturday, a free twice-a-month event not only offers free entertainment to the community, it also allows merchants a chance to sell their wares in an open air market. Another project Joel undertook at HCB was organizing an outdoor Field Day for every school in Leslie County with free food and inflatables for every student in the district.
Joel’s latest endeavor is a return to his television roots. In a partnership with his mother Rhonda Brashear, they, along with co-host Dean Osborne, have created Our Mountains, a Celebration of East Kentucky Culture. Here, all aspects of Appalachian lifestyle are explored and shared: food, music, storytelling, tourism, etc. “We’re taking everything that was great about From These Hills and making it bigger and better,” says Joel. Their pilot episode was recently broadcast on the WKYT channel in Lexington, KY to thousands of viewers. This show featured an in-depth look at Frontier Nursing University, music from Good Ground, an interview with Jonathan Gay and Rhonda singing at the Hurricane Creek Coal Miner Memorial Park. Future episodes, currently in production, are scheduled to feature Jimmy Rose, Bobby Osborne, Appalachian Storytellers, Coal Miner’s Cake, and so much more.
“Our Mountains is our chance to show the amazing things happening in East Kentucky. There are more great stories, beautiful songs and delicious foods found right here in our mountains than we will ever be able to share. But we’re sure going to try!” Not bad for an area considered to be one of the worst in America…