Her own heritage and an overarching desire to help those in need in her home region prompted Cheryl Laws to pursue and attain a degree in Appalachian Studies and, with it, make a marked difference in the lives of others.
The South Charleston native (and resident) attended Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, from 2014 to 2016, earning a Master of Arts degree in Appalachian Studies.
“There was a cultural track to it that focused on music, arts, language and that kind of stuff, but I didn’t do that track,” Laws said. “I studied more of the history and the social aspects of it, such as behaviors, the history of Appalachia, as far as the industries that came through. I can basically tell you why Appalachia — especially West Virginia — looks like it does today, with the research I did.”
Laws has applied that knowledge to endeavors she launched and directs, including Pollen8 and Café Appalachia in South Charleston.
After graduating from ASU, Laws founded the nonprofit Pollen8 in 2015 as an umbrella agency for social programs to assist West Virginia families affected by drugs throughout every stage of treatment.
“We build social programs for families who may lose their children due to drug addiction. It’s an interorganizational collaboration with the City of South Charleston, the South Charleston Housing Authority, Pollen8, Kanawha Communities That Care, Bridgeview and Richmond elementary schools, Rock Lake Presbyterian Church and St. Paul United Methodist Church,” she said in a 2017 Metro West article.
Café Appalachia serves cafeteria-style lunches of items, most grown on site or sourced locally, weekdays at 206 D St. in South Charleston. An imperative of the café is to give those in recovery who have applicable job skills the experience — and confidence — to build a foundation to sobriety and success.
“Before Pollen 8, when I was getting my undergrad degree at [West Virginia] State University, I knew I wanted to do change on a systemic level,” Laws said. “I figured if I was going to change an entire culture, I should know it.”
After enrolling in Appalachian Studies classes, she learned important lessons outside the classroom, as well, she said.
“Growing up in South Charleston, I didn’t identify as Appalachian — until I went to ASU,” Laws explained. “I’d seen lot of people who were embarrassed by [their Appalachian status], but I once I got to ASU, I started understanding it. When I lived in North Carolina, all of my Boone friends made fun of my daughter and me for putting Ranch dressing on everything, which is something we do in our part of Appalachia.
“And there’s the clan-like behavior in Appalachia, which leads, I think, to addiction,” she said. “In the Appalachian culture, everybody holds things like that in and has kept it a secret, and, to keep that secret, addiction is perpetuating inside the addict. It’s a clan-like mentality. It’s accepting behaviors from our families; we can do anything and our families will accept that — that’s from our culture.”
But Laws also sees positive aspects to the Appalachian culture and upbringing.
“The majority of what I focused on — and what I wanted to learn, come back and would love to teach someday — is the empowerment that it is to be an Appalachian,” she said. “The Civil War — that’s how West Virginia became a state. We helped the North in allowing us to separate from Virginia. We were the reason JFK, a Catholic who came to a nearly totally Christian state and campaigned throughout the state, got elected president of the United States.”
Through Pollen8, Laws is also active with the Appalachian Academy, an after-school care program for South Charleston Middle School students, and Camp Appalachia, a summer enrichment program for South Charleston area at-risk youths.
“All of my programs have ‘Appalachia’ in it,” she said, “because I wanted to empower people. We can change things. We don’t just have to be strong and accept things and suffer. We can be leaders. I feel that’s what we’re doing at Pollen8.”
(Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19 virus concerns and public policy guidelines, Café Appalachia is currently closed; check Facebook for further notices.)