A New York-based company’s foundation is providing $50,000 to purchase about 14,000 books to be placed in school buses and seven “literacy centers” around McDowell County.
The good news for the poverty-stricken county comes after McDowell recently made headlines for having the worst health outcomes in the state in all seven years of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings report, having its only Wal-Mart close and experiencing a drop in population to fall below 20,000 residents for the first time since the 1900 Census. The Associated Press reported that the Southern West Virginia county’s population peaked at nearly 99,000 in 1950.
The $50,000 grant comes from the Voya Foundation, a charitable arm of Voya Financial, a financial services firm previously known as ING U.S., Inc.
The grant was announced Tuesday in Charleston by leaders of the Reconnecting McDowell education and community and economic revitalization project.
McDowell schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer said the literacy centers, which Reconnecting McDowell opened, are located throughout the county — including in public libraries and at least one community center. He didn’t know exactly how many books will go on buses.
Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers union, a leader in the Reconnecting McDowell effort, said the new program this fall to put books on buses is important considering the often long travel distances for McDowell students.
“To basically have the buses be a library will be very, very helpful in terms of learning the love of reading,” Weingarten said.
Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the union, said the literacy centers include books that students can take home to keep forever and some that can just be read at the centers.
Reconnecting McDowell leaders also announced Tuesday that workers have begun removing asbestos and pigeon droppings from buildings that will be demolished to make way for low-cost apartments in Welch for teachers. Bass said plans for the Renaissance Village building, meant to help McDowell overcome its teacher vacancy issues by attracting and retaining more educators, remain the same: about 30 housing units and “community amenities” such as a street-level coffee shop.
An August 2014 Reconnecting McDowell press release said construction was expected to be completed about two years from then, but construction has yet to begin.
“Every time we actually give a date, that date changes,” Weingarten said, though she said she hopes the building will open by September 2017. She said the project, estimated at a $5 million to $6 million cost, still needs about $500,000 to $1 million more in funding.
She noted challenges in addressing environmental issues, including flood plain issues, and in raising enough private funding to ensure the apartment rental rates are low enough for occupants to afford.
Gayle Manchin, West Virginia’s former first lady and a state Board of Education member, said agencies also wanted to give due diligence on issues like why Reconnecting McDowell wanted to destroy rather than renovate the structures.
“The is the first multiple-story building built in the county in quite, quite, quite a while,” Weingarten added.
She said AFT originally said it would be involved in Reconnecting McDowell, which started in December 2011, for at least three to five years, and now that about four years have passed, she said the union will stay involved.
When asked whether the national AFT will be involved at least at the same level or a higher level than it has been, Weingarten said “We are not going to abandon our commitment to McDowell County, West Virginia.”
She said the project now is at a point, however, that it needs to ensure its sustainability.
“We really wanted to create a footprint, a blueprint, to help communities that had been abandoned by the economic vicissitudes of society, and help turn them around,” she said of the union’s commitment alongside Reconnecting McDowell’s other partners.