Jim McKay and Stephen Smith: Why children and families won

By By Jim McKay and Stephen Smith
LAWRENCE PIERCE | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Shelby Murphy and daughter Trinity, 4, (right) and Candyce Stonestreet and daughter Dezirae, 1, from Falls View Elementary School were among more than 200 people gathered for a vigil over child care cuts in the budget at the Capitol on May 20.

Last week, a miracle happened. Against all odds, the Legislature found $1.06 million to save programs that help our most vulnerable children and families. Miracles take hard work.

The official story. On Friday, May 16, members of the Governor’s staff met with community leaders, abuse survivors and lawmakers. They told us that nothing would be done regarding the budget cuts before next year. On Tuesday, May 20, more than 225 parents, advocates and workers held a vigil at the Capitol, recognizing the real costs of the cuts: 80 people losing jobs, over a thousand families in crisis losing support. House and Senate leaders leveled with us. They told us “never give up.” They also told us not to get our hopes up. But the next morning, House Republicans and Democrats each issued proposed amendments that would restore funding through gaming revenues — something that previously seemed impossible. The House passed the amendment 90-0. The Senate passed it 30-1. One week after the vigil, on Tuesday, May 27, Gov. Tomblin signed the bill.

How did this miracle happen? How did a group of low-income families, children’s advocates, religious leaders and other allies buck the odds?

This was a campaign aimed to unite, not divide.

The Our Children, Our Future Campaign is a statewide effort, with at least 177 partners. The premise is that the only way we can change the future for our children is to be united. That means leadership from churches and community groups, Republicans and Democrats, unions and chambers of commerce, teachers and doctors, and most of all: the children and families who are most affected. Together, our campaign has won 13 statewide victories in 19 months.

On this particular issue, a huge, diverse coalition emerged: thousands of citizens, the Bishops of West Virginia’s three largest denominations, Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement, organized labor, business leaders and community groups of every stripe.

But that public display of unity only scratches the surface. Back in November, Family Resource Networks and Starting Points Centers agreed to fight for their funding together. Then, when initial cuts were announced in January, they bravely decided to widen the circle to include Domestic Violence Programs, Child Advocacy Centers, Home-Visitors, and Child Abuse Prevention groups — all of whom had been cut.

All for one, and one for all. In a year when every dollar was going to be hard fought, the leaders of these various programs bravely agreed that they would rather their programs suffer united than survive divided.

Their resolve was tested. In March, one of the programs was offered the chance to get their funding restored, but it would have meant the other groups wouldn’t get theirs. They said, “No.” Two weeks ago, child abuse prevention programs were re-granted $260,000; instead of declaring victory, they showed up the next day at a press conference to say that it wasn’t a victory until everyone was restored. That’s what unity looks like.

But that’s not the full story. Those groups also united with various others under the shared banner of the Our Children, Our Future Campaign. That Campaign and its allies were successful on six issues this year — raising the minimum wage, Future Fund, Parent Mentor Program, Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Land Trust legislation, and increasing physical activity in schools. The campaign began their process of picking issues in the summer of 2013. This has been a long fight.

This Campaign was defined by honest, authentic leadership, from everyday West Virginia families who vote.

Unity is important. But victories like this aren’t possible without leadership from everyday citizens. The restoration of children’s programs proves that the voices of voters can still trump the sway of a lobbyist.

Voters like Jamie Gudiel and Sabrina Shrader, two courageous women, who make up what they lack in income with more than enough determination. They sent a letter to the Governor asking him to meet directly with the children and families who would be affected by the cuts. They never got their meeting with the Governor, but they took every opportunity they did get. They educated his staff and cabinet secretaries about the issue, they prepared other families to tell their own stories to reporters, and they helped lead our vigil for families who would lose jobs and services.

Voters like Celena Roby and Roger Lockridge, who courageously re-lived their own experiences as survivors of abuse, more than once, so that lawmakers and members of the media could understand what was at stake.

Voters like the 812 people who asked off of work to come to the Capitol, less than three weeks after the water crisis. Or the 225 more who showed up at the vigil last Tuesday when everyone thought it was a lost cause. Voters like those who organized 18 regional forums in their communities, so legislators could hear from their constituents first-hand about the issues that matter to them.

Because of all of these efforts people showed that this Campaign is just as strong outside the Capitol, as it is inside.

Hundreds of people sacrificed their time, talent, and resources to make this happen, as well as the legislative champions who continued to push for solutions, and the excellent journalists who told our story. That’s what’s fun about working with such a broad movement — you can’t even keep track of every single letter sent or action taken.

We don’t give up.

A campaign this difficult will offer you a hundred opportunities to give up. When the cuts first came down in January, in one of the tightest budgets in years, we had an opportunity to give up. We had plenty of other issues to focus on. Instead, we linked arms with the other programs who were cut.

When revenue bills died on the last day of the session, we could have given up, knowing we had fought the good fight. After the Governor’s line-item veto, it would have been easy to give up. Many of our friends and allies advised us to do so. They said things like “impossible” and “next year.”

But at the same time, other allies emerged, like the Bishops who issued public statements. Like the eight Republican legislators, who signed a letter to the Governor, touting these programs. Like the workers and families who told their stories about the human costs, and the local programs that invited press and lawmakers to tour their facilities, and see the impact first-hand.

When Cabinet secretaries found $260,000 in borrowed funds from other Children’s programs to help plug some of the holes, we could have given up again. We could have declared a partial victory. Instead, the next day, we went ahead with law enforcement officials and members of the Committee on Crimes Against Children to continue advocating for the full restoration.

The Friday before the Special Session, we had a great opportunity to give up. Members of the Governor’s staff told us that the children’s cuts would not be on the agenda, and the issue would not be taken up again until next year. After that meeting, we had to decide: Should we cancel the vigil we had planned at the Capitol? In the end, our team decided unanimously we needed to make one last push.

Then during the Special Session over 200 people were at the Capitol again. Contacting lawmakers. Offering solutions. Calling for action to protect 80 jobs and preserve services that protect children and families from violence. And lawmakers listened. A solution was reached. The funding was restored. All of it.

This victory was not only about $1.06 million; it was proof that democracy in West Virginia is alive and well. Yet even combined with the other victories won by the Our Children, Our Future Campaign and its allies – raising the Minimum Wage, creating a Future Fund, saving child care benefits for 1400 working families, Medicaid Expansion, the Feed to Achieve Act — we are still just scratching the surface.

But we aren’t giving up.

We are both dads with young kids. Jackson is 2 years old. Jake is 13, and Jonah is 7. We are in it for the long haul, because we are not ready to hand over a world to our sons that is worse than the one that our parents gave to us. Neither are the moms and dads who volunteer with the Our Children, Our Future Campaign, or the other members of our Steering Committee. We’re still at the beginning of this Campaign, and we could use your help.

Like our Facebook page (facebook.com/ourchildrenourfuturewv) to get updates on the Campaign, or consider attending or co-sponsoring our upcoming Policy Workshops and Policy Symposium this summer, where we will start the process all over again of picking our top issues and turning out voters for next year. (E-mail ssmith@wvhealthykids.org or jim@teamwv.org for more information).

Jim McKay is with Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, and Stephen Smith is with the WV Healthy Kid and Families Coalition. Both are members of the Our Children, Our Future Steering Committee.

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