McDowell County thanks the AFT for the promise of a brighter day

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AFT members stood and cheered when McDowell County, W.Va., student Trey Lockhart thanked them for helping his home town. "Poverty is poverty no matter where you go, whether you're in Detroit or McDowell County," he said, but the AFT's project to rejuvenate one of the poorest communities in the country has given many families new hope.

Gayle Manchin

Former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin addresses AFT delegates about McDowell County.

The AFT launched Reconnecting McDowell to address grinding poverty and related problems like high dropout rates, poor health, drug addiction, and inadequate housing and transportation. The union is now working with more than 70 partners from business, government and nonprofit organizations to establish programs that are "not a handout, but a hand up," as AFT president Randi Weingarten puts it.

Initiatives include a teacher recruitment and mentoring program, Internet service in every school and a new juvenile drug court that will work with families, schools and social services to treat residents addicted to drugs and alcohol. There are also plans to build the first new homes in McDowell County in 20 years, so new teachers and other public workers can move in and serve students and families.

"Reconnecting McDowell is about the transformation of a community," said Weingarten. "If we do it right, we envision building a structure that can be used in many, many other places, rural and urban alike."

Trey Lockart, McDowell County

McDowell student Trey Lockart and West Virginia Delegate Clif Moore talk about McDowell County.

Former first lady of West Virginia Gayle Manchin, the vice president of the state board of education, jump-started Reconnecting McDowell when she asked the AFT for help lifting up her state. She underscored the importance of serving rural areas, where populations can't compete with densely populated cities for foundation and government funding. Every child in this country "deserves the same opportunities and the highest quality of education," regardless of where that child lives, Manchin said. Reconnecting McDowell is "not just about McDowell County, it's not even just about West Virginia, it's what we need to do for all of our isolated rural communities."

West Virginia Delegate Clif Moore, a firm supporter of Reconnecting McDowell, acknowledged the steep challenges facing those who want to bring social change to a county where three-quarters of the population fled when the mines closed and where child poverty is at 50 percent. But "there's a bright side somewhere," he said, quoting a Pentecostal hymn. "The bright side rests in each and every one of you." [Virginia Myers/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

July 29, 2012