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McDowell County project officials say they are making progress

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A nonprofit has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars since late 2011 into a project aimed at improving life in McDowell County.

Yet the average Welch resident probably couldn't say what ReConnecting McDowell has accomplished, Mayor Reba Honaker said.

"Until they actually see some action as to what Reconnecting McDowell is really about, the average person on the street probably would not," she said by phone Monday.

"Until they see some actual building of housing, and making affordable housing for teachers . . . I think this will make a big impact with the local citizens."

Honaker is a trustee adviser for ReConnecting McDowell. She's one of several community leaders quick to praise the program and express excitement.

Since December 2011, the effort has discussed ways to improve life in McDowell County, which has been perpetually plagued by low academic scores, drug abuse and little economic development.

ReConnecting McDowell wants to help "build a new personal, institutional and programmatic infrastructure for success," according to the covenant each group member signed at the start of the project.

The group met Monday in Charleston. Those in attendance included Gayle Manchin, chairwoman of the ReConnecting McDowell board of directors and vice president of the state Board of Education, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union.

The AFT and the Benedum Foundation, a philanthropic organization, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project. That money has in part gone toward "infrastructure," something Weingarten and Manchin define as trust and building a foundation.

It also helped pay for the organization's four full-time employees and other part-time workers.

Building something a little more tangible takes time.

"I think it's OK to use this analogy now: It is a marathon, not a sprint," Weingarten said. "The engagement initially is a sprint. And lots of projects fail in the sprint, when people get exhausted in the sprint."

Manchin was quoted using the same phrase in the October 2012 ReConnecting McDowell newsletter. McDowell County Commission President Gordon Lambert used his own sports analogy.

"It's come to the point where we need to see some points on the board, you know what I mean?" Lambert said. "Some things being accomplished; they've talked about doing housing, teachers and stuff. Hopefully we'll get started on that."

Like Honaker, Lambert - also a trustee adviser - said community residents are embracing the program and that its success will soon be visible.

Accomplishments

The group presented a seven-page handout Monday called "ReConnecting McDowell Accomplishments." It includes more than $1 million for the creation of literacy centers to encourage children and adults to read.

Many accomplishments cited were meetings, participation in county events or initiatives spearheaded by other organizations.

"I think one of the greatest accomplishments is the relationship that we have built with the local community in McDowell County," Manchin said.

Some include bringing money or development to the area: Project participants are quick to point to a $9.7 million investment by Shentel Communications in September to provide the infrastructure needed for 10,000 homes to connect to the Internet.

The project stemmed from the state's massive Broadband Technology Opportunity Program federal grant. Frontier Communications did most of the work, bringing fiber to many different areas of the state.

Shentel made it possible for homes to connect to that system. The locations that receive any of this infrastructure pay for the Internet provided.

Honaker and Lambert think connectivity has made a huge impact on the community. Local educators agree.

 Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Falin said it has been very noticeable in schools this year. It's too early to see if it will increase academic achievement, Falin said, but she thinks it's coming.

Jeffery Johnson, dean of students and athletic director at River View High School in Bradshaw, said students are able to do more online work at home while helping their parents learn about technology, too.

Johnson said cities like War are mostly connected, but others are still waiting.

Other projects are listed as accomplishments.

VH1 contributed $30,000 in musical instruments, and Verizon helped nonprofit First Book provide 4,000 books.

"As fantastic as individual acts of kindness are, that's not the goal here," Weingarten said. "The goal here is to really enable the community to have a hand up, not a hand out."

The group touts providing funds to dig water lines to two homes being built in the county. The Council of Southern Mountains, a nonprofit in McDowell, built the homes, Executive Director Randall Johnson said.

The state Housing Development Fund provided most of the money for the project, he said. He said the council appreciates ReConnecting McDowell and its contribution, but the project would have happened anyway.

He pointed to the construction of an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility. ReConnecting McDowell also lists the 10-bed residential treatment unit in its accomplishments.

Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center and West Virginia University are coordinating and funding the project, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. The project was delayed; an AFT representative said she wasn't sure when the groundbreaking took place, but she said the center was supposed to be up and running by early fall.

Early fall was also the slated completion time for a "teachers village." Developing an apartment-style building was one of the original goals to attract more teachers. Team leaders announced in June 2012 they were in the process of purchasing a building in Welch they planned to rehabilitate.

It didn't work out, thanks to the building's advanced state of disrepair.

"What happened was that we wanted to really do it quick, and you can't do something like this quick," Weingarten said. "You have to actually do it right, not quick."

Instead, the group is working with a consultant on planning for a stand-alone building. The economics have to make sense for the project to happen, Weingarten said.

Manchin said the group acknowledges the contributions of other organizations. Bringing a national presence to the initiative may have helped speed up that work, she said.

"It's not that we take credit for any one particular thing that has happened, but I do think that if it were not for ReConnecting McDowell, a lot of these groups would not have had the opportunity to talk to one another to figure out what was going on and how they could tie in and connect to it," Manchin said.

Meeting participants discussed the work of several committees devoted to various aspects of the project. Each group will funnel its efforts into three larger areas of focus: instruction, health and "wraparound services," and economic development.

Wraparound services are essential to community schools, Weingarten said: Health centers, continuing education for adults and more social services encourage the community to help itself improve.

Honaker, Lambert, Falin, Jeff Johnson and Randal Johnson all agree ReConnecting McDowell has the capacity to drastically change an atmosphere that's struggled to overcome a litany of challenges.

While Lambert said people might start to become impatient if they don't see progress in the near future, he trusts Manchin, Weingarten and others to accomplish the group's goals.

"They're good people and their word is good," said Lambert, commission president for the last 19 years.

The group is still on pace to complete its goals in three to five years, Weingarten said. It takes a good foundation, and time, to institute any change that can sustain itself, she argued.

"If you're actually thinking about you're going to create transformation in the first moment, you're not being honest," she said.

The group will compile the "deliverables" discussed Monday in a report it will present in May to the state Board of Education and the ReConnecting McDowell board at their meetings in Welch.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1. ;


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