Defying All Odds

Defying All Odds

A mother’s determination to make a change for herself and family

By Kathryn Ziesig

Work hard, go to college, get a good job, meet your mate, settle down, have kids, and retire comfortably. The American dream, an idealized version of how one’s life is supposed to playout.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, “a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful.” It is a goal people have been chasing for decades, but what happens when someone’s life doesn’t quite match up to the perfect outline?

The complete story can be viewed here

WKU Alumna’s work to air on PBS World Channel

A 2018 WKU alumna and photojournalist Brittany Greeson joined a team of four other young journalists during the fall of 2017 in an effort to explore the issues that divide us and the stories that can bring us together for “Crossing the Divide,” an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. The half-hour documentary, which will air on PBS World Channel on September 24th, follows the team as they cross the country documenting the daily lives of average Americans.

“We reported on the idea of divisions in America” said Greeson. “We tried to find topics within that theme in each region.”  Greeson, who had worked with GroundTruth in the past, led the Kentucky reporting.

“I don’t believe in the term giving a voice to the voiceless” said Greeson. “I think people already have voices, I think it’s just our job to amplify them.” 


Below are a few of Greeson’s photographs from the project: 

Thomas Morgan, 32, steadily lifts swaths of tobacco to be hung to dry at the Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability in Quicksand, Kentucky, on Monday, September 27, 2017.  | Brittany Greeson

Layers of rock are seen towering above a busy highway just outside of Pikeville, Kentucky, on Saturday, September, 29, 2017. | Brittany Greeson

Lizzie Jones, 17, proudly wears her father’s employee of the month jacket from his time working at the coal mines nearby a shelf of her family’s relics of the coal industry at her home in Eastern Kentucky, on Sunday, September 24, 2017. Jones’ father passed away from black lung in 2014. In January of 2017 her mother, who also worked in the coal mining industry, passed away. Jones said she has plans on moving into the home they once shared and has developed a complex relationship with the coal. | Brittany Greeson


Crossing the Divide will air on PBS World Channel on September 24th.

Greeson’s work can be found at


Morehead 2017 Mountain Workshops Exhibition Opens


Images and short-form narratives from the 2017 Mountain Workshops will be on display at the Morehead Conference Center, 111 E First St, Morehead, KY 40351 September 9 – 14. The Center is open 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. each day.

Morehead, a small town nestled in the shadow of Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills, became the host in October of 2017 to Western Kentucky University’s Mountain Workshops. More than 90 journalism students and young professionals from around the world spent five days expanding their skills under the watchful eyes of experienced teachers and renowned experts in visual storytelling. All the while they were creating intimate documentaries about the people and places of Rowan County.

The region revealed itself to be a surprising mix of minds and cultures, nature and industry, but above all a friendly place where neighbor helps neighbor. The headlines here often revolve around Morehead State University and its nationally recognized Division I men’s basketball team. The university takes great pride in its $15.6 million Ronald G. Eaglin Space Science Center. The future is happening at Morehead State. But most folks here love their history, and they have plenty of it. The area is nearly as old as the United States itself. The first settlers came here from Virginia in 1783, after the end of the American Revolutionary War. In 1854, Morehead became the third community settled in the county and named after James T. Morehead, governor of Kentucky from 1834 to 1836. Mayor Trent said folks here pride themselves on their hospitality, and visitors have been known to find the town so welcoming that they decide to make Morehead their home. “Morehead is really a melting pot for this area,” he said. “From the international students and staff at the hospital to our homegrown population, it all works together. It’s really a testament to the high quality of people we have here.”

The exhibition is made possible by Canon, USA and Western Kentucky University School of Journalism and Broadcasting.

For more information contact Jamie Breeze, Director of the Morehead Conference Center, 606-780-9694 or Miranda Pederson, Mountain Workshops logistics coordinator, 270-745-4206

2018 Capstone Projects

We are excited to present an exhibition of the 2018 PJ436 Projects class, WKUPJ’s capstone course.


Arms to Embrace

A short documentary about protecting the ones you love in the face of a school shooting


Two women in Western Kentucky embark on a journey to spark a change in the mindset of their community, in the face of recent school shootings. Their motive – to protect the ones they love.


Journey to Pascha: Cultivating a Love for Christ


At Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, three community members make their way through the seasons of Great Lent and Holy Week, pursuing their goal of cultivating love for Christ in their hearts and their homes. Jackson struggles to create a new framework of belief for his family. Jeanette faces her inability to control the faith of her children. Father Jason struggles to balance his spiritual fatherhood with the demands of being a husband and a dad. This short documentary explores what it means to lose and gain faith and family.

Great Lent is the 40 days leading up to the annual ritual reenactment of Jesus’s last days called Holy Week.

Pascha is the Eastern Orthodox name for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, called Easter in western Christianity.



Unexpected Strength

Stories of adversity, inspiration and second chances through the eyes of athletes


What do a college student, stay-at-home mom, swim coach, visually impaired high schooler and mentor for underserved children have in common?  This project explores the stories of five different athletes beyond the court. It dives into their individual motivations, challenges, and the role athletics plays in their respective lives.



Searching for Hope

America’s most beautiful small town has some secrets.


Over the past few years, Bardstown Kentucky has had several unsolved crimes, including the disappearance of Crystal Rogers. After the sensational news stories slowed down, America quickly forgot about the mystery of this small town. However, the pain of Crystal’s disappearance is no less real for the people still searching for hope.



Love as steady as a rock

A father’s love powers him to care for his son


Larry Cushenberry, 74, is a retired Health teacher who has Parkinson’s Disease. Larry’s case of Parkinson’s affects his posture, walk, balance, and hand movement. Cushenberry was diagnosed six years ago and Parkinson’s has been detrimental to his health. Despite Cushenberry’s diagnosis, he is the main caregiver and legal guardian to Greg Phillips, 48, his nephew, who he refers to as his son. Larry’s health hinders him and soon he won’t be able to care for Greg.


Surviving in Hell

How diabetes affects people’s lives.


Have you ever seen someone out at a restaurant stick a needle in their finger or give themselves a shot? Do you know someone who carries an insulin pump with them everywhere they go? Diabetes has become more prominent in recent years, yet no one seems to realize how deeply it affects those diagnosed. It is something they live with and think about daily.




Cada día por Dios (Every day for God)

Inside La Luz del Mundo and the expansion of Hispanic evangelicalism


On the corner of Clay Street and West 12th Avenue in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Light of the World church (Iglesia La Luz del Mundo) towers above the surrounding neighborhood buildings. The church has become a cultural hub for the local Hispanic community through festivals and activities. Through their work at the church and a nearby taquería, tortilleria and tienda – all of which are owned and operated by the church – members of La Luz del Mundo hope to serve the community through faith and spread the word of God.



Families tell their story of loss to Louisville’s Gun Violence

Michael Blackshire started his journey to document victims of gun violence last semester in Louisville, Ky. What started as a series of portraits evolved over time as he came closer with the family’s of homicide victims and began recording their stories with audio then transitioning to video. As the project became bigger he brought together a team of WKUPJ students to help him bring his vision for the story together. Michael along with Fahad Alotaibi, Gabriel Scarlett, and Shaban Athuman attempt to tell the stories of people that often feel their stories aren’t being told.

To view the entire piece, visit



Rochelle Turner wraps her body around her only son’s Ricky Jones High School jacket. Ricky Jones was murdered April 2017 from gun violence at the age of 29-years-old. “At first I would look at other mothers who lost their sons and thing their sons were into something and mine wasn’t. I would think that maybe if my son was doing something wrong or died from a disease or committed suicide I would be able to find closure, but in any way I can’t bring my son back. Hew was murdered but his life wasn’t his own. He had five children who now have to live without a father in their life,” said Smith.

Judy Wilkins, Jasmine Wilkins, and Sherry Simmons, left to right, hold the graduation picture of Gregory Wilkins who was murdered at his home on November 26, 1996 at 1737 South 22nd Street, Louisville, KY. “I visit his grave once a week. I have been once a week for 21 years,” said his mother Judy Wilkins. “I once dreamed that he was reaching out to my hand and I almost reached his. I said baby why did they take you so soon. He told me my time had come.The last thing I heard him say is take care of Jasmine, and let Sherry know that I love her, and that I love you, my mother and my dad. Then he was gone.”

Craig Bland holds middle school and elementary school photos of his son Craig Bland Jr. and Toreze Bland who were both murdered in 2012 and 2015 from gun violence in Louisville. “After my first son was murdered the situation made me worried about loosing my youngest son. I thought it was only a matter of time until they shot my youngest one. The streets killed my sons. My son’s were good people they just were around the wrong people. I watched my wife Diana die from cancer in front of my eyes, my brother was murdered, my two nephews were murdered, and now I have no more sons, no more children. There used to be a lot of live in this house. That love is gone now.” said Bland.


Projects from our students

Srijita Chattopadhyay

During her internship, WKUPJ student Srijita Chattopadhyay followed a Rohingya refugee family as they observed 40-days of mourning after the accidental death of their son.

The original story can be seen in the  San Antonio Express-News

Sitting on the floor of her affordable housing in San Antonio, Zahidah Begum Binti Ali Miah raises her hands in prayer. To Allah she requests, “take care of my son,” and then slowly exhales, “help me find peace.”
August 12, 2017, marked the end of a 40-day mourning period for Mohamad Sharib’s family. Ordinarily, Islam calls for three days of mourning. But, for the family, a 40-day observance is a cultural variation in their Muslim faith.


On July 7, 2017, Zahidah requested to see her son one more time after the customary ritual of gusal (bathing and cleaning of the deceased) to say her last goodbye. “My son. My good son,” Zahidah kept chanting, as her younger son, Mohamad Emran, along with relatives, escorted her out of the morgue.


Laying her head on her husband’s lap, Zahidah takes a moment to look over at her grandson to make sure he is asleep. As days pass by and Mohamad Sharib becomes a memory, Zahidah feels his absence in the family. “Sharib would always take care of me,” she said with tears in her eyes. “He would cook food, make tea, give me medicines on time and massage my shoulders when I would feel pain. Now I have no one.”

Zahidah endures the pain of the loss by herself. She feels that her husband does not understand her. “He tells me to get over it and live for my other son and my grandchildren,” she said. “But how can I do that?”



Gabriel Scarlett

While interning for The Denver Post in the summer of 2017, WKUPJ student Gabriel Scarlett began traveling to Pueblo, Colorado, a rust belt town known for its gang culture. His ongoing essay focuses on the community’s resilience.

A full essay can be viewed on his website

Julian Rodriguez plays with his son Christopher at their home on Pueblo’s East Side. Julian’s decades-long struggle with addiction brought him intimately close to the gang operations as he often bought from and sold for the gangs in order to support his own addiction. With his son, Christopher on the way, he reached sobriety and had his facial skeleton tattooed to remember his commitment to his son and to commemorate his brother “Bone Head” who was killed in a shootout with the police. “Everything that I desire and want in this life is for that boy.” Christopher will grow up on the East Side, in Duke territory, but Julian hopes that a loving relationship with his father can keep him from that lifestyle.


Felix Rubio praises at New Hope Ministries, a front lines church in Pueblo that openly accepts addicts, alcoholics, gang members, and anyone else seeking God. As a gang member in Denver, Felix recalls his life as a warrior, a “beast,” owning machine guns and moving kilos of product from his apartment. His drug use kept him up for days and even weeks at a time, until he checked himself into a faith-based rehabilitation program. When people look at him now, Felix wants them to see “Jesus, bro. Jesus. When I was in the hood, I wanted them to see me. When they see me now, I want them to see Jesus’ likeness.”


On a scorching summer day, Catholic parishioners of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart pass the Pueblo Sheriff’s Department building during a procession to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, which honors the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

WKUPJ Shaban Athuman and Nick Wagner place 2nd & 3rd in Hearst

Congratulations to our WKUPJ student Shaban Athuman, 2nd place,  and graduate Nick Wagner, 3rd place finish in the annual Hearst Feature/News competition.  Shaban wins $2,000 scholarship and Nick wins $1,500 scholarship from the Hearst Journalism Awards.

Image from Shaban Athuman’s 2nd place entry

Dale Brumfield, of Doswell, Va, left, stands with Jack Payden-Travers, of Lynchburg, Va, on the day of the execution of William Morva in Jarrett, Va., Thursday, July 6, 2017. Both said they are opposed to capital punishment.


Image from Nick Wagner’s 3rd place entry

Lone Peak players celebrate after defeating Pleasant Grove during the UHSAA class 5A volleyball title match in Orem on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016.

Through Our Eyes – 11/29/17

Best of the best:

Public Information Officer Timothy Gray of the WKU Police Department grew up in the south side of Nashville, TN. Gray has lived in Bowling Green since 2004, and after previously working on a joint terrorism task force with the FBI, described his current position as unexpected. WKUPD needed someone who was connected and aimed to move in a new community-based direction. Gray’s passions lie in race relations and breaking down the barriers of race. “People fear what they don’t understand,” Gray said. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that was transparent and honest.” Gray values the power of respecting people, and getting to know the community he serves. He acknowledges that there is a level of distrust with the Police Department and certain minority groups in the community. “There are some folks wearing this uniform that shouldn’t be, but those are the few,” Gray said. “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” He is passionate about asking tough questions and seeing what the Police Department can be doing better. “We are servants. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.”|Lydia Schweickart

Honorable mention:

Kicker Ryan Nuss #37 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers celebrates after scoring the game-winning field goal against Middle Tennessee at L.T. Smith Stadium on November 17, 2017, in Bowling Green, Kentucky.|Shaban Athuman

Jerry Ayers, 75, relaxes outside of Teresa’s Restaurant in Bowling Green, KY on the back of his 1987 Ford Wrangler. “My first car I bought was a 1957 Ford. I kept that car until her wheels fell off. After three engines and thirteen thousand dollars later I had to let her go. I’ve had this sweetie Wrangler here for fifteen years and she still has her original engine. She breaks down, but this Ford Wrangler is a easy fix.” Ayers said.|Michael Blackshire

WKU volleyball team beats North Texas to win the C-USA Volleyball Championship in E.A. Diddle Arena on Sunday, Nov 19, 2017.|Silas Walker

Through Our Eyes – 11/14/17

Best of the best:

My grandpaÕs leathered skin and soft eyes are brighter than most and have seen more sorrow. They’ve seen twelve presidents, a world war that took his father away, a civil rights movement, the stoplight in town be put up then taken back down again when there was no longer a need for it. His hands have helped give birth to hundreds of calves and have carried both his parentsÕ caskets. Now, at 72, with three children and seven grandchildren all spread across the country, the future of his land is uncertain. He reckons it isnÕt time to worry yet. He reckons heÕll just work this land till he dies. He reckons they’ll be buried together. |Skylar Ballard

Honorable mentions:

NASHVILLE, TN – NOVEMBER 12: Running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans carries the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Shaban Athuman

“I have memories from back at home and putting them together I could tell the difference and Up to now I can remember things from there to here,” Mohamed muketar speaks of the culture difference since moving to the United States from a refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2004 his family moved to the United States in search for a better life. | Shaban Athuman 

From left, Judy Wilkins, Jasmine Wilkins, and Sherry Simmons hold the graduation picture of Gregory Wilkins, who was murdered on Tuesday, November 26, 1996 in Louisville, Ky. He was pronounced dead as soon as he went to the hospital. Jasmine, his daughter, was two years old and in the other room when he was murdered. His girlfriend Sherry was at work, and his mother Judy was at home. “I visit his grave once a week,” said Judy. “I have been once a week for 21 years. I once dreamed that he was reaching out to my hand and I almost reached out to his. I said ‘baby, why did they take you so soon?’ He told me his time had come. Then he was gone.” Judy said. |Michael Blackshire

Through Our Eyes – 11/7/17

Best of the best:

Bill Santley, 50, waits to get off in North Hollywood on the Green Line Metro Bus in Los Angeles, California. Bill Santley has been blind all of his life. “I would suggest stay in Northern California, there are a lot of people who don’t speak english here. I have to find an address and people I try to communicate to on the train speak Spanish. Very hard to navigate around LA, and being blind makes my days more rough. Unfortunately IÕve lived here all of my life, but the train system helps. Housing is ridiculous. If your going to live in LA you better have a kid, or else people won’t help you. Or your going to get left behind.” | Michael Blackshire


Honorable mentions:

Eugene Monsun, 76, smokes a cigarette before headed back home. He has lived in Bowling Green, KY for 10 years after retiring from carpentry. ” My old roommate died a year ago so now I live with his son. I try not to dwell on death but I can’t help but think about the inevitable since he passed away. Also doesn’t help my health that I chain smoke cigarettes.” Monsun said. | Michael Blackshire

Connor Fadely helps to clear the football field following a Creek Wood victory over the Portland Panthers on October 20, 2017 at Portland East Middle School in Portland, Tn. The Red Hawks won 21-6. | Gabriel Scarlett

PORTLAND, TN – 20: Kicker Camrin Lyle of Portland Panthers sits during halftime of a game in which she did not see playing time against the Creek Wood Red Hawks on October 20, 2017 at Portland East Middle School in Portland, Tn. She is the only female member of the Portland team. | Gabriel Scarlett

Dawson, 6, trick-or-treats with his family on Halloween in Brownsville, Ky.|Morgan Hornsby

“Here, we are not prisoner,” Denise says. “The [refugee] camp was surrounded with bushes.” Since moving to Morehead in 2014, she started a garden that includes her infamous hot peppers.|Shaban Athuman

Hours after Denise Luke was born in Togo, a west African nation, her family thought they were looking at her for the last time. She was born a bit overdue, and had swallowed some bodily fluids during the birthing process. A man passing by asked what was going on and the family told him that she was dead. The man looked at her, then made a cut under both of her eyes and applied some material on the wound. Seconds later she was awake. |Shaban Athuman

Nashville, TN – 4: Runners compete in their race at the TSSAA State Meet at Percy Warner Steeplechase Course in Nashville on Nov. 4, 2017. | Gabriel Scarlett