It began eight years ago with a heartfelt commitment to help get a rural American community back on its feet. On Sept. 9, the AFT and our partners met in McDowell County, W.Va., to celebrate the official groundbreaking of a four-story apartment building to house educators—the first new multistory structure in Welch in more than 50 years.
Called Renaissance Village, the affordable housing for educators will include at least 16 one- and two-bedroom apartments within a five-minute drive of Welch Elementary School and Mount View High School, as well as within commuting distance of all public schools in McDowell County. The new apartments are expected to be ready in time for the next school year.
“This is about more than just a new building. It’s about something even more important: hope,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said at the ceremony. “With this groundbreaking, with this building, we have kept a promise made eight years ago to work with the community in the hope of transforming the lives of McDowell children and their families. And we have a deep and abiding hope that this monument to our commitment is a turning point for Welch and McDowell County.”
Weingarten had spearheaded Reconnecting McDowell in 2011 with West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin. “Good things don’t happen because of one person,” Manchin said. “Good things happen when many people work together.”
They were joined at the ceremony by Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO; AFT-West Virginia President Fred Albert; Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America; Welch Mayor Harold McBride; and Emily Hicks, a special education teacher and graduate of Reconnecting McDowell’s Broader Horizons program. “This is something that means something,” Hicks told participants, including the all-union construction workers atop the building. “This is something that shows hope.”
At the end of the ceremony, they all donned hardhats, hammered nails and signed a steel beam. The apartment complex is being built on the site of a former furniture store, and the story of its construction already features amazing instances of generosity, including the old structure’s demolition, courtesy of a McDowell County business owner.
Renaissance Village is a major part of Reconnecting McDowell, a massive collaboration among more than 100 public and private partners to help the coal mining community reverse its steep economic decline and resulting traumas like opioid addiction. The partnership’s progress is testament to the fact that together, through our union and with the community, we can accomplish what would be impossible to achieve alone.
As momentous as the groundbreaking is, it reflects only one facet of the campaign that’s unfolding in a beautiful wooded enclave nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Since Reconnecting McDowell was created, the high school graduation rate there has risen, the dropout rate is now less than 1 percent, teen pregnancy is down, college enrollment has doubled, and broadband access has been expanded—all reflecting the campaign’s goal of “reconnecting.”
Broader Horizons for students
One of the brightest lights of Reconnecting McDowell is a mentorship program called Broader Horizons. Now in its fifth year, the program sent about 15 high school students to Washington, D.C., in June for a weeklong field trip. The students took part in job shadowing, met with their U.S. senators and toured the Holocaust Museum. They also participated in a career-development workshop at the AFT headquarters, training and then taking mock job interviews.
A highlight was meeting students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, where the kids toured the school and shared fun facts that compared urban and rural living. See photos from their trip here.
Earlier this year, 22 high school juniors in Broader Horizons visited Charleston, the state capital, for a similar week of learning and fun. They toured West Virginia State University and an arts center, and met with their state representatives. They also volunteered at Manna Meal, a nonprofit organization that operates a soup kitchen.
Scholarships and grants
In May, six students from Mount View and River View high schools each received a $5,000 For the Future scholarship to attend a West Virginia college or university this fall. The students were picked based on their commitment to McDowell County through community service. What’s more, the Maier Foundation this year doubled its initial gift for scholarships, to $40,000.
Grants are coming for McDowell teachers, too. At this summer’s TEACH professional issues conference, the AFT gave one of nine $1,000 Freedom to Teach awards to McDowell County educator Terri Kennedy, who has taught at Welch Elementary for five years. Each $1,000 award is for credit on DonorsChoose.org, a website that helps teachers buy classroom essentials.
McDowell residents were understandably skeptical about the staying power of a coalition of people with good intentions but not a lot of experience in rural communities, says Chad Webb, partnership coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell.
“The first question they’d always ask is ‘Where is this big thing you promised?’ referring to the teacher housing,” Webb says. “The building is a real turning point. We’re expanding our reputation and creating momentum.”
Webb credits Debbie Elmore, Reconnecting McDowell’s school and community liaison, with reliably serving as the key figure in every initiative, from the rush of activity eight years ago through the slog of day-to-day program maintenance. Members of the community see the dedication, money and effort going into McDowell, he says, and they are becoming believers.
Elmore agrees that residents initially were skeptical. “Now that there’s something you can see and touch, it’s easier to get people to realize that we’re here to stay,” she says. “We needed something tangible.”
Webb points to two more developments in the past few months. The first is a $50,000 grant from the nonprofit Volunteer West Virginia to plan an AmeriCorps program aimed at high school seniors. “Our kids march across the stage and get their diploma, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need any more help,” Webb says, adding that this is a way to help high school graduates make the transition to further education or careers.
The second new award is a $97,000 farm-to-school grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help students grow produce at school greenhouses and gardens. The idea, Webb says, is not only to cultivate fledgling entrepreneurs who sell vegetables at local farmers markets, but to channel some of their produce directly into school lunches.
Other partnerships continue to flourish. This year, Reconnecting McDowell is sponsoring a pilot program with the West Virginia Coding Club for McDowell students who have shown an interest in computing. Project Aware, funded through a federal grant, trains school personnel on how to detect students’ mental health issues and connect families with the appropriate services. And the United Steelworkers Women of Steel and UniCare have contributed eldercare toiletry kits to the local health and human services program.
The hope generated by Reconnecting McDowell is spreading, as evidenced by a neighboring public transit system in Bluefield that’s extending bus service into McDowell County.
The future of rural America
We live in a perilous era of extreme economic inequality, and nowhere is this truer than in coal country. Building on the success of Reconnecting McDowell, the AFT is expanding its rural initiatives with partners like One Country and in places like Massena and St. Lawrence County, N.Y., ultimately to help families enjoy the freedom to live securely on one job’s wages, with a decent retirement and the right to join a union.
“The rural way of life is worth fighting for,” Weingarten said, adding that the AFT and its partners are fighting so that rural communities will have access to education, healthcare and reliable services. “Our goal is that not one school, not one hospital, not one post office, not one grocery store should close on our watch.”
But the harsh truth, she noted, is that rural people feel as if their way of life has been kicked away in places like McDowell County. “Here, in Welch, the community decided to do something about it,” she said, calling Renaissance Village “the greenest of green shoots. While we’re nowhere near the finish line, we’re seeing some tangible, gratifying accomplishments. That’s the hope, that’s the dream of Renaissance Village. That is the American dream.”
[Annette Licitra/photos by Ronnie Lee Bailey]