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Reconnecting McDowell will take some doing

McDowell County is West Virginia's poorest and most challenged. The decline of the coal industry left McDowell County with virtually no economy, a broken infrastructure and little hope that things will get better.

Normally, a community's young people provide hope for a more prosperous future. However, school children in McDowell County face formidable obstacles.

Forty-two percent of all students live in a home where neither biological parent is present. Nearly three-fourths of all students come from a home where there is no gainfully employed adult.

Drug abuse is ravaging the community. At least eight deaths a month in McDowell County are blamed on prescription drug overdoses. The county has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.

But there is hope.

The American Federation of Teachers has teamed with over 100 public and private partners for Reconnect McDowell. It's a comprehensive, long-term effort to improve public education.

The problems are so severe, however, that they can't simply build a few buildings or hire a few dozen teachers. For example, the housing shortage is so severe in McDowell County that any new teachers would have trouble even finding a place to live.

Reconnect McDowell is trying to rebuild the community from the ground up with housing and infrastructure, public services for students and their families, improved health care facilities and more.

Yes, some taxpayer dollars are going into the project, but private partners are stepping up as well.

The AFT has donated $150,000 and the Benedum Foundation has added $100,000. Frontier Communications, Globaloria and Shentel Communications are providing high-speed Internet access.

Many more partners are chipping in as well.

Many of the participants and community members met last month in Welch with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has pledged his support.

"I just love how the community is committing to come together and doing everything they can to revitalize the community and provide great education for the children," Duncan said in an interview with Metronews.

Granted, throwing money and resources at a problem does not necessarily translate into success. In fact, many times this kind of effort devolves into expensive bureaucracies and unkept promises.

However, Reconnect McDowell appears to be a true joint effort by a cross-section of the public and private sectors.

Ultimately, a resurgence of the private sector is the only way to create wealth and empower individuals economically so they can provide for their families and aspire to something better. But those seeds of success aren't going to grow in McDowell County without some help.

Reconnect McDowell may just provide that assistance. It's worth a try.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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