The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

July 25, 2011

Summer youth program under way at Scarbro

SCARBRO — In the steamy afternoon heat, a pile of old furniture, equipment and slabs of wood is steadily growing outside the Whipple Company Store and Museum basement.

Inside the basement, a group of teenagers and 20-somethings are busy digging deep into their West Virginia roots — nearly literally, as they unearth and sort the contents of the company store basement.

The group, participants of Build it Up, a West Virginia summer work and leadership development program, are spending six weeks this summer at the Whipple Company Store, the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), and the Rock Lake Community Center in Charleston.

Coordinator and former participant Amber Whittington, a 21-year-old from Ameagle, explained that the program seeks to introduce participants to community projects in southern West Virginia — and to other young people with hopes to “build up” their state.

“[It’s about] connections within places they go, and that it’s not just something to pass the summer with, but that they actually feel a connection and bring it back to their own lives,” she said.

At each site, the group strives to carry out its mission to “join in to build infrastructure and expand the capacity of long-term community-run sustainable economic projects in Southern West Virginia to develop meaningful economic opportunities that open doors, come from within, and combat oppression.”

The group motto of  “solidarity not charity” involves working with community groups — recognizing that both the youth and the community groups can grow and learn from each other.

At the Whipple Company Store, for example, the six participants and three coordinators not only helped re-organize the basement for repairs and future exhibits, but also learned about their coal mining heritage and the importance honoring it.

Whittington described this kind of work as key to West Virginia’s future.

“This state is one of the richest in resources but poorest,” she said.

Joy Lynn, co-owner of the Whipple Company Store and Museum, expressed a deep appreciation for the youths’ work.

“They’re a group of very hard-working people,” she said. Lynn emphasized that the store has no political stance, so she has no comment on any of the group members’ philosophies.

“But as far as work ethic, it sure does restore my faith in youth for today, because you hear so much about youth being lazy, and you definitely can’t say that for this group … Watching them work here has changed my opinion.”

At the Whipple store, the group supported the company store museum in its effort to promote the area’s cultural resources.

“It’s part of our history, and all the participants here are born and raised West Virginians or go to school here,” Whittington said. “This is a part of history never learned on history books.”

Working in amid an antique refrigerator (the size of a car) and camera (bigger than an average refrigerator), the group cleared away materials to expose the beams that needed repair. The museum staff can now access the printing press room, which stores old printing equipment, including old presses from the early 1800s.

“We’re working in a museum that explains so many things that have gone on in West Virginia — background history that many people don’t know about, even West Virginians,” said Whittington.

She described learning about how young boys sometimes had to start working in the mines as young as 6 or 8 years old if their father died. If a wife of a deceased miner had no sons, she would have to leave town.

Whittington found connections between past and present struggles.

“A lot of people don’t realize that even though it’s been 100 years … people are still being put down,” she said. “In the 1920s, if you would’ve spoken out against the company store, you would’ve been put out of a job,” she added.

“Here in 2011, it’s harder if you want to speak out, it’s harder on our family if you want to speak out against dirty industries and destructive mono-economies.”

The Build it Up program takes a close and probing look at many of these struggles they see in West Virginia today.

After a morning of work in the basement, for example, the group sat down to a discussion about prescription drug abuse problems.

“It’s really, really one of the biggest problems right here … and we have people working in every area to touch on these systemic issues,” said Dustin Steele, coordinator and former participant from Mingo County.

“When they’re on drugs, they’re not going to be able to help bring a clean, just Appalachia.”

Steele drew connections between the drug problems and the overall pattern of problems in his community.

“The same systemic issues that keep us poor and destitute also keep us addicted. All these industries are doing the same thing — they want to keep you poor and isolated.”

“And that’s not going to change without people stepping up and saying, ‘No, that’s not right.’ I hope that’s why every single one of us is here right now — to say, ‘Hey, we’re from Appalachia, and we see this is a problem.’ We can no longer be ostriches with our heads in the sand, because it’s killing our fathers, it’s killing our mothers, it’s killing our families.

“Every little thing you’re doing, everything to help better the community, betters the entire system.”

Participant Tyler Cannon of Logan said that now, at 18 years old, he has felt a pull to community work. The program gives him a chance to try out different jobs.

“I’m just now getting to a point in my life where I can change how I affect others,” he said. “I’d like to know … how to help Appalachia without having someone instruct me on how to do so, and I figured I could do that by observing organizers as they worked.”

Mackenzie Norman of Boone County actually joined the group after coordinator Joe Gorman’s truck broke down in front of her house. Gorman was on the way to a march on Blair Mountain — a reenactment of the historic march on Blair Mountain, this time to preserve the mountain from mountaintop removal.

After talking with Gorman, Norman decided to join the group for the summer. The two main problems she hopes to see tackled? Drugs and the health effects of coal mining.

“They’re destroying everything,” she said.

Her goal?

“To make a difference, and see West Virginia become a better place, and it partially be my role.”

Participant Andrea Whittington, of Kanawha County, explained that she also came to the program with specific personal goals.

“To actually mean something to someone. I want to have an influence and feel like it’s not just another person,” she said.

“I want everyone to be able to come together like Martin Luther King. I feel like everyone is either on this side or that side.”

Lynn agreed — and pointed out that the Whipple Company Store shares this goal.

“Any time you can get together different people with different opinions — to get them around the table and get them talking, it has to be good for the community.”

For more information, visit http://grandaspirations. org/westvirginia or contact builditupwv@gmail.com.

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