* Editor's Note: The following article is part of the West Virginia Press Association's series on the "Our Children, Our Future" Coalition. The West Virginia Press Association is following the coalition's efforts, providing reports from its organizational meetings through its attempts to have impactful legislation passed during the 2014 session of the West Virginia Legislature.
State Sen. John Unger, the West Virginia Senate Majority Leader, has been a high-profile presence at "Our Children, Our Future" Coalition events, offering encouragement to those involved in the grassroots effort to end child poverty in West Virginia.
The reason for Unger's involvement: The senator, D-Berkeley, says he knows one person, or one movement can make a difference. He has seen it happen.
Unger likes to tell how a third grader's comment galvanized efforts to provide free meals to every elementary school student in the state. He says the story illustrates that one person can make a difference and demonstrates how, when the winds of change begin blowing in one direction, they are irresistible.
A champion of many of the efforts by those involved in the "Our Children, Our Future" coalition's quest to end child poverty in West Virginia, Unger used the story to inspire attendees at workshops last month in Beckley and Bridgeport.
Coalition members are now preparing for a symposium in Charleston on Tuesday, followed with presentations to the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty on Wednesday, Unger's example of success in generating real policy change in West Virginia may give all members of the coalition hope.
Unger was the lead sponsor of the Feed to Achieve Act, which positions West Virginia to become the first state in the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch to every elementary school student. It envisions using federal money and contributions to pay the costs.
In his keynote speech at the "Our Children, Our Future" workshops, Unger recalled visiting Berkeley Heights Elementary School to explain to third graders what a state senator is and how a law is made. He was concerned it would be boring. He got the kids' attention by asking, "Do you know who my boss is?' "
One child guessed it is the Governor. Another shouted that it must be the mayor. Yet another guessed it's a judge.
"One little kid in back stood up and said, 'Your wife!' I said, 'That's right, at home. But who is my boss as a state senator?'
"I told them, 'You are my boss!'
"They thought I was lying," Unger said. "I explained that every four years I'm either re-hired or fired. They must have seen that TV show because they started chanting, 'You're fired!' "
The Berkeley County Democrat moved the discussion along by talking about how a bill is made. Then, "I said, 'Today I'm making you all senators.' Oh, they loved that. Then I asked them, 'If you could change one thing in this school, what would it be? A little girl said, 'A longer recess!' A little boy said, 'An extra lunch.'
"You now have two bills but you can only vote for one," Unger told the students. He said he noticed the principal was looking worried about how either of the 'bills' would be implemented. So he pointed out that "even if we pass a bill, the governor can sign or veto it. Right now the principal is our governor.
"Then I asked for a discussion and told them, 'This is called a debate.' One of the kids said, 'If we have a longer recess, we have to stay longer in school. "