Commentary: In Appalachia, Women are the Change Our Communities Need

Photo: Provided

In the summer of 2018, my hometown town of Clarksburg, West Virginia, seemed to be experiencing a major crisis. We had a large number of unsheltered residents in our small town and a lack of resources to help them. On any given day, you could drive through town and see the negative effects of a failed mental health system as well as the consequences of the opioid epidemic. Community members seemed to be at war with each other; it had become “The Haves” vs “The Have nots.” 

Crime rates had increased, and residents were upset. Bikes were being stolen off porches, garages were being broken into and used hypodermic needles were being found around the community. Many residents felt that city officials were not doing enough to address the situation. A few of them started a Facebook discussion, and the posts received an overwhelming response. They questioned what was going on in Clarksburg, as they no longer recognized the city they loved and grew up in. From the Facebook discussion, a community meeting was organized at a local park where residents could address concerns and come up with solutions. 

A large group of people showed up to the first meeting, and the discussion immediately turned to homelessness and crime. Some expressed their anger about all the problems they were seeing in their neighborhoods. Rumors of busloads of people being dropped off in Clarksburg began to circulate, and some residents said they would be more willing to help the individuals experiencing homelessness if they were from our town, but they believed that these individuals were from somewhere else and needed to be sent back. Many in the community did not understand that most of the people experiencing homelessness were also, in fact, natives of Clarksburg. Another meeting was scheduled, and this time, committees were formed to carry out various plans for community improvement and outreach.

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The core Outreach Committee consisted of six local women, myself included. Together, we mobilized, engaging with individuals and conveying their needs to others in the community. Community walks in every neighborhood in Clarksburg were scheduled alongside social service groups and agencies to ensure community members had information on services and numbers to report crimes. Walks on trails began to engage the individuals experiencing homelessness to ensure they had access to information and help for substance use disorder, mental health services and shelter options. These events took place weekly starting in September of that year, occuring in the evenings and on weekends when volunteers were available. 

We quickly realized that most homeless individuals had no way of contacting service providers because they did not have access to phones and if they did, the information was given after hours when providers were not available. We quickly changed our game plan, and in October the outreach group became a stationary effort. Service providers were asked to meet these individuals where they were: on the street.

On Thursday nights, you could find our loyal group of volunteers set up in a parking lot along a main street, engaging with the individuals experiencing homelessness and linking them to services that would help set them up for success. There, we helped these individuals obtain essential government identification documents, like birth certificates, social security cards and IDs, address mental and physical health needs, and locate a place to get a warm meal and clothing to help them survive the elements.

Photo: Provided

Our committee members began forming meaningful bonds with those we were supporting, and with the approaching holidays, we wanted to provide them with a bit of normalcy. So, we started planning a community Thanksgiving dinner. Tables and chairs were donated, more than 20 turkeys were baked and all kinds of sides were prepared. Local businesses and community members alike stepped up to ensure this was a success, and one popular local artist donated his time to sing songs around a bonfire. Volunteers sat and ate together with the individuals experiencing homelessness. If you stood back, you couldn’t tell who was who. 

That night was one of the coldest nights of the year. Our volunteers cleaned up and went home, leaving individuals outside to survive the elements. When I got home that night, I could not get warm for hours; no amount of clothing or blankets helped. It was at that moment I realized that more needed to be done to help these individuals end their time on the street, but I was unsure what that was. The outreach committee began working with the Clarksburg Mission to help individuals get services, church congregations began volunteering with us each week, and youth groups started collecting items needed for us to continue our outreach events. Through this outreach, our community was finally coming together.

Photo: Provided

During the winter months, some committee members stepped back, but a core group of us were determined to ensure these efforts continued — no matter the weather. A Christmas dinner was planned, and the community stepped up even more this time. Because of this teamwork, we were able to provide community members and homeless individuals with a special meal they may not have had otherwise. Members from other committees expressed to us their uneasiness about the amount of effort being put into this outreach; they felt that other community projects were not getting enough attention. After conversations about the future of these events and what direction we wanted to go in, it was decided that we would part ways and form our own nonprofit, The Change Initiative. 

Since 2018, our group of six women has made unparalleled strides to make Clarksburg a more inclusive community by creating initiatives where individuals can access services they need when they meet a rough patch in their life. The first week of January, we were approached by the director of the Clarksburg Mission to see if we were interested in hosting an overflow shelter in the event they ran out of beds or for individuals who had been previously banned from the Mission’s emergency shelter. We were hesitant at first; we had no experience or money to put such an event together, but we all knew that it was needed. When the temperature dropped near zero degrees in January, a local church agreed to let us use their fellowship hall for shelter. We had $200 and agreed to purchase some cheap air mattresses and fleece blankets. We had no plan, but we knew we had to do this or people could freeze to death outside in the elements. 

Photo: Provided

Soon, other churches began offering up their space as the weather became colder and colder. The first season, The Change Initiative was open for 21 nights and averaged 30 people each night. During this time, we completed assessments to learn about the individuals’ needs and assisted them in getting necessary services and treatments. Through our efforts in these various outreach programs, we began to see the severity of gaps in services available to individuals experiencing homelessness. 

We were able to help people get into substance use treatment programs, find permanent housing, reconnect with family members and help them get jobs. We weren’t just a place for people to find shelter during the coldest part of the year, we were a valuable resource that helped them re-establish their lives. We also learned that 86 percent of our guests were from Clarksburg or had lived here longer than five years. We were helping veterans, seniors and youth just out of foster care, but most importantly we were helping our own: our fellow Clarksburg residents. 

Photo: Provided

From the shelters, we continued our outreach events each week, rain or shine. In the summer of 2019, we started a Youth Mentor Program to help children in our area learn basic life skills, build relationships and help them gain experiences that would enhance their life. That year, we held our second season of emergency shelters, inspired by the WATTS program in Winchester, Virginia. We worked with nine different churches and organizations and hosted guests for 15 weeks that winter, as local volunteers and churches again answered the call to provide shelter and hot meals for our guests.

In 2020, as we were finishing up the second shelter season, the coronavirus pandemic struck. On March 14th, the day before the end of our shelter season, our group met and decided we would provide emergency food box deliveries to senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals who couldn’t risk exposure. We began delivering boxes throughout the community each week. We partnered with other local agencies to purchase food and we were able to support local restaurants by purchasing prepared meals from them for seniors who couldn’t cook for themselves. We delivered food boxes from March until November and started our third shelter season on December 1st. Since September 2018, our group has fed individuals each and every week, whether it was through an outreach event, our shelter, or our food delivery program.

Photo: Provided

Our next — and biggest — project, Phoenix Recovery Residence, is slated to open in March 2021. Our recovery residence will be a step-down program, and women will be required to complete a 28-day substance use program before they can move into the house. Each woman will have a team that helps them navigate their way through recovery. 

Through this effort, we are committed to empowering women to lead sober and successful lives by providing safe and supportive housing options. We believe that women can transform their lives and achieve long term sobriety if they are willing, supported and have the skills necessary to make lasting changes. In the recovery home, they will have access to mental health services, learn fundamental life skills and have support from other women in the home. 

All of these programs were executed by six courageous and passionate women in our community. These women come from all different backgrounds, education levels, social economic classes, but we are passionate about creating positive change in our community. These women are business owners, mothers, wives and advocates. Each woman brings different values to our group — we are caretakers, we are leaders in male-dominated fields, we are minorities and we are change makers.

We came together because we have all been affected by addiction, and we have all loved someone who struggled with addiction. Each of us has tried to help a loved one navigate the system and watched it fail person after person, and we decided to create programs that actually serve those in need. These women are improving our community one program at a time. We are not asking for permission, nor are we waiting for others to join our cause; we are simply ensuring quality of life for the most vulnerable residents in our community.

Anjellica Scott is a social worker in North Central West Virginia and graduated from Marshall University. She is the co-founder of The Change Initiative and has played an instrumental part in helping communities in Appalachia for 10 years.

She is a member of 100 Days in Appalachia’s Appalachian Advisors Network. For more information about Anjellica, to interview her for a story, or to learn more about AAN, visit our website.

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