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Marissa Rexroad

Long before COVID-19 had become a household word, almost a year before it began to wreak havoc on an already vulnerable population in Harrison County, Marissa Rexroad, then the associate director of the local homeless shelter, created a county-wide task force to study the area’s burgeoning problem of homelessness.

“We have had the highest shelter numbers in the state. And ... very high unsheltered numbers. We had a lot of folks who wound up homeless and many of them were unable to exit that homelessness in any reasonable amount of time,” she said.

The task force worked to identify the factors behind those numbers and then looked at models that appeared to work well in other communities. The results prompted Rexroad to launch the United Way of Harrison County’s Solution-Focused Street Outreach and Rapid Rehousing Programs — just as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting West Virginia. Shelters were being forced to limit their services statewide at the same time that an increasing number of people were becoming homeless due to economic conditions.

“We decided to gear up for an outreach effort,” in conjunction with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, said Rexroad, now the Housing and Communications Director for United Way of Harrison County. “We screened the entire population that we had outside and we pulled the highest risk folks ... into a hotel where they could quarantine. Ten folks at that time who were highest risk. Folks who are older, folks who have chronic health conditions, and we put them in a hotel and then within a period of 30 days, we placed them all in permanent, stable housing.”

At just 27 years old, Rexroad is part of a small group of young leaders across the state who met the challenges of 2020 head on.

The Beacon Awards

One by one, as schools and businesses shuttered, as people began to hunker down and eliminate all but the most essential of tasks, six people under 40 years old quietly ramped up their unsung efforts to meet the aching needs they saw in their own communities in a wide variety of ways.

Now they are being recognized for those life-changing efforts as part of the 2020-21 Beacon Awards, presented in partnership by Generation West Virginia, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to attracting and retaining young people in the Mountain State, and the One Foundation, which supports grassroots efforts to build a stronger, more inclusive economy in Central Appalachia.

“What all of these Beacon winners have in common is, they are not waiting for anyone else to come in and solve their community’s problems for them. They saw a need and they did whatever they had to do to fill it,” said Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia.

Throughout the extensive selection process, Roper said, the selection committee would ask nominees how they got started on their projects.

“And over and over again, we’d hear something along the lines of, of course, this is what I’m doing. I saw a need and I knew I could do something about it. And so I did,” she said.

Each recipient will be awarded $2,000 to support and sustain their work. They also get a year of mentoring and additional resources, and become part of a statewide network of like-minded young leaders in the hopes that they will support and strengthen each other’s efforts.

In addition to Rexroad, the other five Beacon Award recipients are:

Liz Brunello

Liz Brunello, 29, has been the youth program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee for more than five years, working with teens in Boone and Logan Counties to help them figure out what to do once they graduate from high school.

“We don’t screen students who want to be a part of our program so we get a little bit of diversity, but overall these are kids from economically insecure families,” she said.

“We think that once you give them a hand up, like visiting schools and speaking directly to your representatives, that’s just the door that a lot of kids need opened. And once the doors open, we see so many transformative things,” she said.

When the pandemic started, she and her colleagues launched WV Food ER 2020, an online community that connects people who need food, transportation, education activities and vital information with people and resources who can help.

“We had been working on policy to address kind of the gaps in reaching food-insecure kids out of school ... so when the pandemic started, we were like, ‘Oh, man, this is exactly what we were trying to push for with our legislation,’” she said.

“Volunteers were signing up, like, ‘I want to help reach people who are homebound or, for whatever reason, don’t have transportation, can’t get to the schools to get the meals.’ Some counties did such a good job with mobile feeding and trying to, going up in hollers, every week. And other counties didn’t have that capacity.”

The increase in families having to rely on community resources “is really intense,” she added. “And it just causes these ripple effects of instability through the family and then through the community.”

“But we know that food insecurity is on the rise and we have volunteers who want to help. And we can keep doing this for, you know, as long as we can,” she said.

For more information, visit WV Food ER 2020.

Clara Lehman

As a co-founder of the creative studio Coat of Arms, Clara Lehman directed her first feature-length documentary, “Born in a Ballroom,” which tells the story of her grandmother, who was a matriarch of the Swiss town of Helvetia, West Virginia.

“If you know The Hutte restaurant, which is the only restaurant in town, she founded that with another woman and basically kind of helped turn the community around in a very positive way. And so this little restaurant, along with her push and pull to get people to embrace their heritage, their Swiss heritage, was very important,” Lehman said.

“So I made a film about her postmortem, because I didn’t get the chance to do it when she was alive,” she said. “And so this is like a love letter to her and to the community. ... Basically it just kind of embraces and encourages overall this idea that if you really stick to something and have passion for something, you can make a beautiful life for yourself in the mountains.”

In addition to her work on the award-winning film, Lehman volunteers as the president of the Helvetia Restoration and Development Organization. In that capacity, she and a handful of volunteers have built a playground, restored the local museum and preserved cemetery headstones. They also host the town’s annual Fasnacht festival. Though still not sure what the festival will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and linked to the Swiss Winterfest, a traditional celebration of the community’s Swiss heritage.

Started in the 1960s by her grandmother and a friend, “They kind of brought it into a more West Virginia sphere where everybody can enjoy this tradition. ... What the community does that night is we don masks and we scare away Old Man Winter and have a big kind of masquerade ball. People play music and eat fatty foods. So it’s a pre-Lenten festival.”

Takeiya Smith

Takeiya Smith, 26, is the youth empowerment and racial justice organizer with Our Future West Virginia, and the lead organizer with the Young West Virginia power building movement.

“It’s really building a movement with young people that by informing, supporting, and connecting youth to social action and advocacy to address racial issues, we seek to use collaborative strategy to make our communities, campuses and systems more equitable, compassionate and just,” she said.

Her work focuses on helping students and young people of color ages 14 to 24 address issues ranging from discrimination in schools and policing.

“We create spaces for students of color to have safe places to share their stories and connect with others going through the same thing while guiding them to strategy-based practices to make things better in their schools,” Smith said.

She started as a volunteer years ago, wanting to make a difference with her peers — and was inspired by some of the uprising around the issue of racial injustice that was going on nationwide.

Rather than join a movement elsewhere, though, “I wanted to address racial justice here at home by seeing what was going on around the country and knowing that we had our own issues to address here for sure.”

Young people, she said, are often overlooked when policies are being made.

“I think there’s a way to connect young people who are often overlooked to the people who are making the decisions,” Smith said.

Danny Swan

As a volunteer at Wheeling’s Laughlin Chapel back in 2014, Danny Swan realized he didn’t know how to control a classroom full of energetic kids — but he did know about being outdoors. So he worked with some friends and colleagues to get a kids’ garden going in the rough-and-tumble East Wheeling neighborhood where he lived. As the movement — and the number of gardens — grew, so did the mission to address food systems and food economies.

“So we said, ‘Hey, let’s turn this into a more ambitious nonprofit. We’ll change the name to Grow Ohio Valley, to indicate a broader scope of work, a regional scope of work. And let’s pursue an ambitious agenda to rethink our food system here in Wheeling around, let’s say, creating a food system that focuses or prioritizes health for consumers and, you know, economic prosperity and meaningful work for food producers – with a special emphasis on traditionally disadvantaged populations,’” Swan said.

They created programs for everything from food literacy — teaching kids what’s healthy, how to grow their own food and make good food choices — to a food hub and trucking center where farmers can bring their products and get help in getting them to market.

“We launched a year-round grocery store focused on local food at your grocery store, and a year-round farmer’s market on Main Street. So possibly the most prominent retail location in all of Wheeling is now, you know, devoted to healthy local foods,” Swan said.

The hope for the future is to have a positive, measurable impact on the public health in Wheeling, “by putting together the right suite of priorities, the strategies and initiatives to actually move the needle on things like childhood obesity and other diet-related illnesses like diabetes and Type 2 diabetes and blood pressure and so forth,” he said.

Jenny Totten

Jenny Totten has left the state of West Virginia three times — and then returned. When the last job that brought her back to the state she loves ended, she realized she didn’t want to just pick up and move again.

“I’m invested in this part of Appalachia. It’s where I’m from and what I know. The people are awesome. It’s great. And I think I will always find a way to earn a living and be able to impact this area,” she said. “That’s my goal in life.”

About that time, she added, the West Virginia Community Development Hub was looking for ways to deepen its impact in McDowell County.

“Initially, it was a lot of just listening and figuring out what successes there had been in McDowell County around economic development and then kind of helping the community and myself backtrack as to why those were successful and then why other things were not,” she said.

One of the challenges she recognized quickly was that the people who were showing up at one meeting were the same people showing up at the next meeting — and they were already overwhelmed.

“I was able to say, like, ‘OK, what happens if we purposely don’t invite these people to the table and instead start asking other people what’s going on?’ And that’s where there is energy,” she said.

The typical approach to helping McDowell County is almost always focused on creating badly needed jobs. That, said Totten, doesn’t necessarily take into account some of the deep-rooted challenges.

“In McDowell County, there are layers upon layers of nuanced difficulties, number one being it’s very isolated. ... If you’re bringing products in, manufacturing products, and the [final] product then has to go somewhere — it’s expensive to get products in and out,” she said.

Instead, Totten focused on what individual communities could do themselves. “McDowell County is becoming a more and more popular tourist destination due to the Hatfield-McCoy trails and all the ATV tourism, and so a lot of my work was, ‘What do I do to grow an entrepreneurial mindset in these communities?’”

The Beacon Award, said Totten — and other recipients — provides a network and resources for meaningful work to continue.

“It kind of reinforced for me that, you know, working with small communities is where I excel,” Totten said. “And meeting people where they’re at is what excites me. And getting kids excited about maybe coming back to Appalachia and having an impact in their own communities, like, this is the work I’m supposed to be doing.”

For more information on Generation West Virginia and the annual Beacon Awards, visit generationwv.org/the-beacon-awards/.

Reach Maria Young at maria.young@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5115 or follow

@mariapyoung on Twitter.

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