Estep and his mother, Michelle Cook, opened the pizzeria 11
months ago, and Estep still helps out when he can. But he says he felt the need
to step away from the family business and strike out on his own.
“Pretty much I’m locked up in a room with 50 convicts all
day, every single charge from murder, child molestation, drugs, petty crimes, I
mean it’s everything,” said Estep on a break from pizza duty. “And you’re not
allowed to know their charges.”
Estep found work as a corrections officer at Stevens Correctional Center in Welch. It’s a county-owned
facility that houses minimum to medium security state prisoners.
“A lot of people try that job for a day or two, and then it
becomes overwhelming,” he said. “But my Grandpa said ‘no matter what, you stick
it out in there, because that’s money and a career and insurance!’”
Daniel has stuck
with it; he’s been on the job since the beginning of the year. He says while he’s
never comfortable in the center, he’s gotten use to it, and he’s grateful.
That’s because he says the only other comparable option in McDowell County would be coal mining.
“That’s like going to hell for me,” said Estep. “I have so
much respect for miners. My great grandpa was a coal miner his entire life. If
you live around here, your ancestors were coal miners for sure. But for me, I
just couldn’t do it.”
Daniel was born and spent his early years in Nashville, TN. His parents split up when he
was just a baby and his mother moved back with him to her native McDowell County.
At one point he says he tried to leave McDowell, in search
of employment options, and basic amenities.
“I moved away the day I got out of high school. I moved down
to Nashville, TN, The whole time I lived here, I
just wanted to get back there,” he explains.
“When I got there I found out that somehow this place
changed me or something and it’s almost like I didn’t belong there anymore, you
know? It’s just like my mind couldn’t
handle it or something,” he said.
“I don’t know exactly what it was but I lasted about 3
months down there, and I came back to McDowell County.”
His dad offered him a place to stay in North Carolina, so Estep tried going south. But
the same thing happened. Daniel says after living many formative years in the
isolation of rural, southern West Virginia, he couldn’t make it in Charlotte either. So he returned to Welch.
“I’ve tried to go other places and I just don’t fit in
anywhere else. Unless you’ve grown up around here, there’s no one that can be in
your mind-set because the things you see and experience are totally foreign and
laughable to people who grow up in cities and more developed places,” said
“They don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing to do
and nowhere to go.”
“Where I grew up in Bradshaw there was no movie theater,
you’re an hour from McDonalds, you’re an hour from Wal-Mart, there’s nothing
but a gas station and a ridiculously priced grocery store,” he added.
Estep says drugs and drug abuse are everywhere in McDowell County, and he has seen his share of drug-related tragedies.
“When you find yourself in that kind of position, you’re
going to do some kind of drug or drink because what else do you do? What else
in the world are you going to do?”
Estep says even those who abuse drugs in this community are
still largely good people.
“I always tell people the biggest dope-head around here is
probably nicer than the most upstanding citizen in the city, you understand? The
people that talk bad about this county haven’t seen enough of other places to
realize the value that is here and the value that is in the people of this
When asked what it would take to improve life in McDowell County, Estep says he’s not a pessimist;
he’s a realist.
“To improve this community it would take an act from God,”
he said. “To live here you accept that
it might never change, it might never get
“You can build a park, you can build a theater, but there is
some type of unknown factor that draws people to prescription medication around
here, and there’s no getting loose from it,” he said. “I don’t think that the
Pope, Mother Teresa or Barack Obama could come down here with money and power
of untold magnitude and could do anything to change that.”
“What do you do? You live around it. You choose not to
participate in it. In my case you just isolate yourself from everyone that
drinks or does anything else. So I just stay away,” he said.
Estep says he’s staying in McDowell County for now. After returning from Charlotte he entered Bluefield State College,
where he met his future wife, Jenny.
“It’s not about me anymore, and that’s the number one thing
for why I am what I am, my Mom and Jenny are what I live for.”
Estep has applied for a position at the McDowell Federal
Corrections Institution, and Jenny works at a local bank. They’ve bought a home
in Welch and just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.