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2012

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Back for the future

Sustained volunteerism in Welch, W.Va.
By Mary Slade

Imagine a wreck in which both the driver and passengers are pinned. Rescuers come, haul them out, but leave them by the side of the road to dress their own wounds. No one would do that, right? But isn't this exactly what happens with many relief trips and many volunteer efforts? Get in. Do a job. Get out. Fixing a town devastated by a flood or hurricane or decimated by crushing poverty caused by decades of economic drought cannot be accomplished in a weekend or a week or even a month. It takes decades. It takes commitment. It takes a sustained effort.

JMU students repairing house in Welch, W.Va.
JMU education students are taking a community-building approach to providing sustained relief efforts in Welch, W.Va.

Robbed of economic stability and hope

One such community is Welch, W.Va., which is located in the southern region of the state and in the heart of Appalachia. Welch, where unemployment tops 10 percent and 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, is the county seat of McDowell County as well as the eighth poorest county in the nation. Welch was once a thriving community before an insidious contraction in the coal industry robbed it of its economic stability and left a population of proud people to deal with the consequences — joblessness, illiteracy, poverty and a crumbling infrastructure.

This is the same pattern being replayed around the world when the economic heart of a town or city fails. Efforts to revive such a community can seem insurmountable. JMU, which is already predisposed to service, has looked at the problem with a focus on sustainability and is applying that principle to Welch by involving the university community. This long-term approach is changing the paradigm of volunteerism while pursuing a new kind of mission — a sustainable, permanent, transformative relationship that produces long-term civic health in the community instead of a "get in, do a job and get out" philosophy. This is help that attends until the patient is well.

JMU approach to volunteerism

The program in Welch grew out of a series of relief trips that I spearheaded and made with College of Education students to several Gulf Coast regions following Hurricane Katrina. The original Katrina Relief trips were exceptional in that they drew students, professors, alumni, staff members, associated families and high-school students. In all, more than 500 volunteers have participated in six significant outreach opportunities through the College of Education since 2005. Nathan Plowman with Aid for the World, a nonprofit organization committed to reversing the effects of poverty, made the first entree into Welch. After seeing the dedication of the JMU community firsthand during a Katrina Relief trip, Plowman contacted me last year to get together a JMU contingent to join him in the long-term, sustained effort in Welch. "Of all the people I worked with during the Katrina relief it was JMU students who stood out the most," Plowman says. "They really seemed to understand the nature of what it means to be a volunteer."

Since the initial trip to Welch, efforts have been deep and enduring, and will continue for at least another three to five years. Only a sustained effort will produce long-lasting results. One student volunteer says, "Fifty volunteers can come in and rebuild a building, but what about the people that live in the building? Sustained efforts have a positive domino effect."

This practicum experience in Welch enhances students' cultural competence, fosters civic engagement and improves their knowledge about impoverished rural schools. The college's Exceptional Education Student Ambassadors and the student chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children have collected and sent books to Welch. Another group renovated a nearly unlivable intergenerational house for a Welch family. Another 150 JMU volunteers restored 31 apartments to live-in condition following a fire, and progress continues on reclaiming an old medical building for a community center. Plans also are under way for JMU practica students to work as tutors and student teachers — an initiative from JMU College of Education Dean Phil Wishon.

In the process, Welch is changing — and so are the student volunteers. Most have grown up far from endemic poverty. Their experience in Welch has been transformational. One high-school student volunteer says, "I finally know what it feels like to be a part of the human race."

Transformation of society

The pervasive nature of the Welch program spreads beyond the JMU community. The college initiated a curriculum that has introduced some 23 middle- and high-school classes to JMU's service learning. Someday, College of Education graduates may teach students in Welch how to read. As they do that, and as they rebuild buildings, they are also, as one student says, "helping a community regain hope one step at a time." No single college student can change Welch, nor can a thousand. But by linking together that continuum of care and support, they can spark an uplifting positive motivation that will allow Welch citizens to plan and execute their own futures.

Helping to resuscitate Welch — Herculean from one perspective — is exemplary of JMU's Be the Change spirit as well as the university's long history of service. CoE Dean Phil Wishon sums it up best: "Our imprint on the future begins with the belief that nourishing wounded spirits is achievable, and that strengthening civil societies is attainable. We need universities that do far more than just fit young people with economically valuable skills. We must also prepare students for a civic life in which they will have to work with fellow citizens of very different backgrounds, needs and points of view. Nothing less than the transformation of society is at stake."

The problems facing Welch won't be solved overnight as these problems are not lesions that can be easily excised. These problems are more like profound brain injuries that require the devotion of myriad specialists and the consideration of every organic function. These problems also require compassion, long-term commitment and a fundamental change in the psyche of the community. As one JMU student so aptly put it, in this situation, "Going back is moving forward."

About the Author
Mary Slade teaches in the JMU College of Education's Exceptional Education program. Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Slade volunteered to lead students on a relief trip to Biloxi, Miss., during Thanksgiving week. Since that initial trip, she has made five additional trips with students, including another Thanksgiving week trip and a Winter Break trip in 2006 to New Orleans. A relief trip pro, Slade offers the intercultural practicum trip to Welch through the JMU Office of International Programs.