As the executive director of Generation West Virginia, Natalie Roper had the enviable task of notifying six unsuspecting young leaders across the state that they were finalists for a prestigious award none of them had ever heard of.
“The Beacon Award winners are doing the work that needs to be done for their communities,” she said.
“What they all have in common is this social entrepreneurial spirit. They want to be a part of making social change in their communities and are working with the communities and coming up with creative solutions,” she added.
The awards were launched through a partnership with the One Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports a stronger, more inclusive economy in Central Appalachia and beyond. Together, both organizations wanted to spotlight and support West Virginians between 18 and 40 years of age who are leading an effort to create positive change at the street, town, regional or statewide level. Recipients will get extensive support, networking and mentoring opportunities, and a $2,000 award.
There were 47 nominees. Review committees, expected to select two winners, whittled the list to six they said were all equally deserving.
Most of the finalists said they were surprised and excited to receive the award, valued the opportunity to connect with their like-minded peers, and had a long list of options for furthering their work with the money.
At least one thought the initial notice, delivered by email, was an online scam.
Another blurted, “Hold on, I’ve got to call my mom.”
“It’s really easy for young people to feel like they’re the only ones doing the work if we’re not intentionally connecting them with other young leaders who care about the same things that they do,” said Roper.
The award program, she said, is a way to boost those doing the hard work of social change in a state with plenty of challenges.
But organizers also have a broader goal: to keep young leaders here, in West Virginia.
“People are more likely to stay when they’re... connected with peers, where they have a community of support with other young leaders who care about building a future in West Virginia,” said Roper.
“There are lots of young people that are here that are leaning into the challenges that their state faces, that are making progress, that are seeing hope in their communities and are therefore more likely to stay in the state long-term.”
This year’s Beacon Awardees will be recognized on Oct. 17 at the Clay Center Planetarium with a reception from 6 to 7 p.m. and an award presentation from 7 to 8 p.m. The reception and awards ceremony are free and open to the public and take place on the same evening as Charleston’s Downtown ArtWalk and the Clay Center’s Art After Dark. For more information on Generation West Virginia and the Beacon Awards, visit generationwv.org or the Generation West Virginia Facebook Page. For more information on the One Foundation, visit all-onefoundation.org/.
Shardinae Adams’ life could’ve gone a lot of different ways. Facing considerable challenges early on, she struggled to find the right path.
“I ended up going through foster care from 9 to 18. I aged out, ended up sending myself to prison a couple of times, had a lot of anger,” said Adams, a Fairmont-based hip-hop artist. The owner of Blockstar Entertainment, she performs under the name TK Blockstar.
On the road to recovery, she began looking for ways to help kids like her younger self. Her first school backpack drive in 2018 gave out hundreds of packs along with food and entertainment, and was even bigger this year. She helped to refurbish a community center and launched a coat drive.
Twenty-six and free of drugs for almost three years, her work is now based in Los Angeles while she continues to focus on community projects at home.
As for the award money? “I might put it out on Facebook and see what the community wants,” she said.
Sarah Cordwell, 39, spent “the better part of two decades with no real sign of hope,” that she would ever beat her drug addiction, she said.
She found freedom in a most unlikely place: behind bars. More than five years into sobriety, she called her life now “amazing,” but said “Along with that comes a responsibility to help others.”
She pulled together a group of friends and began working to change the narrative about those who are homeless or addicted.
“People who are suffering don’t have the ability to speak up for themselves,” she said. “They’re in survival mode. ...I thought, if they could meet with some caring, maybe we could change the narrative.”
As the co-founder and leader of the Charleston-based Solutions Oriented Addiction Response (SOAR), “we went from passing out ice cream bars to getting businesses and churches across the city trained in Naloxone,” and working to effect change for individuals and the community. The group has community meetings with pizza and child care provided on the fourth Wednesday of each month beginning at 6 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, located at 1105 Quarrier St.
“When we stop meeting problems with compassion, I think we’re in trouble,” Cordwell said.
Michael Farmer, 32, is the program director of the nonprofit program Step By Step and the pastor at Risen City church on Charleston’s West Side.
“When Jesus fed the 5,000, he didn’t say ‘I’m just gonna feed the Christians,’” Farmer said. “So let’s take care of the physical needs and then see if we can meet the spiritual.”
Step By Step operates 15 after school programs in Kanawha and Logan counties — including one at Risen City — providing homework assistance, physical fitness, a free meal and a snack for each child because “with poverty you don’t know where your next meal may come from,” Farmer said.
“We see a lot of poverty that very much mirrors what’s going on with the drug abuse and the opioid crisis,” he said. “Last year we lost 13 parents in our after school program because of overdoses, and this year we’ve unfortunately lost three to five already since the school year started.”
He envisions a library on the West Side and, down the road, a path toward sustainability that will provide consistent funding and job training for students.
Like other teachers and parents in her small, rural West Virginia community, Lucy Godwin, 30, had a problem with summers.
“We did not have a public library in Beverly. It’s a small town, no stop light or anything, and I knew that many of our students wouldn’t have transportation to the library in the summer months.”
She also knew many students fell behind on their reading skills when school was out, so she came up with the idea of of creating a book mobile, found a nonprofit partner, and secured funding before the end of the school year in 2017.
“For the first two summers our bookmobile was actually our principal’s Volvo, his white SUV,” she said.
With a caravan, they added snacks, physical activities and a mobile farmers’ market operated with volunteers. Today they have an old school bus that’s been retro-fitted into a library, and they make 10 stops every Tuesday.
“I think its really encouraging and inspiring to learn about the incredible things other young adults are doing around the state,” she said.
Allison Ibarra, 36, was frying mozzarella sticks when she learned she was a Beacon Awards finalist. That’s not surprising, considering that these days, the worn-down, shuttered old Oak Hill bowling alley she and her husband bought back in 2014 focuses at least as much on food and drink as it does on bowling balls and strikes.
What is surprising, she said, is the community impact of the project.
“This was where people would come to hang out after work, after school. This was the spot to go, and when it closed, that hurt,” Ibarra said.
“The idea was to take this place that had essentially been taken away from the community and build it up to be a place that is appealing to as many people as possible. So this place that was lost, they can have it back again.”
Today, Pinheads is a busy bowling alley near Fayetteville with after school programs, leagues, community fundraisers and a staff education program that provides opportunity to workers looking to advance their careers.
Ibarra said she is particularly excited to connect with peers doing similar work across the state.
“To be able to have this cohort I can talk to and relate to is so helpful, it makes it a lot more doable.
Back in middle school, a young Dural Miller had a strategy.
“I would act out in class when it was time for me to read I would do something, I didn’t want to be made fun of so I had to do something to get sent to the office,” he said.
The truth was, he couldn’t read, and was panicked enough that it brought him to tears.
“I was scared. What was my life going to look like?” he remembers. “I thought options like being on the streets or getting locked up somewhere.”
Instead he turned to his faith.
“I prayed about it and I promised the Lord if he would ever show me I would show other people,” said Miller, 39.
In 2009 he made good on that promise, founding the nonprofit Keep Your Faith Corporation, a nonprofit that helps children and adults with reading and spelling difficulties.
Primarily based on Charleston’s West Side, KYFC works with community partners to host holiday dinners for the needy and has launched a workforce development program.
“If you know how to read it opens up so many doors,” he said.