WHITESBURG, Ky. — There is a large billboard on the way in to Whitesburg that depicts a mother kneeling at her child's grave.
The message: "Prescription drugs, it doesn't have to be this way."
For far too many in the mountains, this scene is a reality, young people told Democratic residential candidate John Edwards Wednesday during a forum at Appalshop, a multidisciplinary arts and education center.
Hundreds of people came to see Edwards in Eastern Kentucky at the end of a three-day, eight-state tour of poverty-stricken areas.
They told him that teens and young adults are overdosing at an alarming rate, while others are trapped in a vicious cycle of daily drug use. Young people described common images of high school students crushing and snorting pills on desks at school, and babies born addicted to drugs.
A vanload of mostly 14-year-olds from Letcher County said they all have friends who do drugs.
"What really scares me is that addicts don't have a place to go for help," said Natasha Watts, 23, of Whitesburg.
For the most part, people ignore addicts, viewing them "as just part of the landscape, just another abandoned building," she said.
Watts urged Edwards to bring more drug-fighting resources, including additional rehabilitation facilities, to the region if he is elected.
Drug use coupled with the lack of jobs has spawned communities filled with hopeless people, the young people said.
Many dream of getting away. Others said they want to stay, but limited opportunities make it impossible.
"One day I may have to leave my home in the mountains," said Machlyn Blair, 20. "Every day I hear teenagers making plans about the future, and it doesn't include the mountains."
If he leaves Appalachia, Blair said, he would be the 24th person in his family to move in search of better jobs.
The youths urged Edwards to bring more jobs to the region, which relies heavily on the coal-mining industry.
"We need something other than coal mines and minimum-wage jobs," said Raul Urias, 28, of Pike County.
He said it's unacceptable that many full-time restaurant and retail workers are still living in poverty.
"For too long, the Appalachians have been neglected," said Urias, who drove about 90 minutes to see Edwards.
Edwards said much of what he has seen on his tour hasn't been pleasant.
He met a 14-year-old mother of three; poultry workers who work 10 hours a day, including Saturdays, for very little money and who are not always paid overtime; and a woman who's about to lose her home.
Edwards said he hopes to focus attention not just on the problems, but also on the solutions to poverty.
After his stop at Appalshop, he ended his tour in Prestonsburg, Ky., where he gave a passionate speech on the Floyd County courthouse steps, just as Robert Kennedy did 40 years ago when he toured the distressed region.
"One of the reasons that I'm doing this tour, and one of the reasons I'm here, is to make certain that the rest of the country hears the forgotten voices of Americans - good people, strong people, courageous people - who are just faced with some challenges," Edwards said.
"I want you to know that we see you, we hear you, we are with you and we will not forget you."
He said he hasn't met anyone who's looking for a handout or someone to take care of them. "They want someone to help them take care of themselves," he said.
Edwards' plan to end poverty in America within 30 years includes:
_Creating a universal health care system.
_Strengthening the rights of unions to organize workers in workplaces so they can earn a decent wage.
_Making sure that every child who wants to go to college "and is willing to work to go" gets the chance without graduating with a huge burden of debt.
_Raising the minimum wage.
While Edwards' anti-poverty plan has made headlines, his lavish lifestyle - including a 28,000-square-foot house and $400 haircuts - has been criticized. Some have said Edwards' poverty tour is simply to gain political support and will amount to nothing.
"After voting to raise taxes, charging college students $55,000 to hear a speech on poverty, and earning $500,000 at a part-time hedge fund job, it's clear that John Edwards' rhetoric on poverty is hypocritical," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said Wednesday.
But most people interviewed at Edwards' appearances Wednesday dismissed what Urias called "such negative talk."
"I have faith in Edwards," he said. "I don't think this is just a political move. I think he's genuinely supportive of us."
Nathan Hall, a 24-year-old Berea College student from Floyd County, said he thinks Edwards has some good ideas to fight poverty.
Hall said he was pleased by Edwards' backing of environmentally friendly ways to strengthen the economy and improve the environment, such as biofuel plants.
As for the $400 haircuts and a fancy home, "I say it's fine," said Bernie Johnson, 74, of Whitesburg. "If I had the money, I would do that, too."