When Leah Barker first contacted a Kanawha County commissioner with a comment about the Shawnee Park multi-sport complex, she didn’t realize she would end up volunteering to lead a youth program there.
Barker, a Dunbar resident and mother of two boys, sent a message to Ben Salango asking what a sports complex that will host travel tournaments and local teams could offer to the kids of Dunbar and Institute who don’t play sports.
“[She] said, ‘We need arts and tutoring. We need a youth development center,’” Salango recalled about the message, one of many he received about the proposal to put a sports complex at Shawnee Park in Institute.
Fast-forward a few months, and Barker is Salango’s pick to be director of the Shawnee Youth Development Center, a nonprofit that will operate in the park’s existing clubhouse once the sports complex is built.
“It’s a way to give back to the community, which I think is key. And having raised two kids in Dunbar, I have been trying to do this for years and it never got off the ground until Ben,” Barker said.
Plans for the nonprofit are still in the works, but Barker and Salango hope it can partner with nearby West Virginia State University so that the college students can work with kids there in after-school programs and tutoring. Barker also envisions science projects, crafts, coding, visual arts, music and computers.
“Some kids live in homes without computers, so they need basic classes,” Barker said. “And schools rely on computers. It’s a way to keep them up to par.”
Barker said she and Salango know several visual artists and musicians who would be willing to volunteer their time at the center.
They also hope to reach out to retired teachers to see if they’d volunteer their time to tutor kids.
“A lot of them don’t have to ability to get that help at home,” Salango said. “When my oldest comes home with geometry homework, I have blank look on my face, so I have to hire a math tutor, and some people can’t afford that.”
The programs offered at the center will be free for kids and paid for with fundraising.
Barker’s concern for kids who can’t play sports is personal. Her 14-year-old son has a form of dwarfism that causes his bones to be weak. Sports are out of the question for him.
Barker said as he has grown up, it’s been difficult finding places for him to build childhood friendships. She worries about bullying.
“I do this from my soul and totally in his honor and for every kid like him,” Barker said.
Barker said her initial contact with Salango came in May after she posted on Facebook about the complex, which then was in the proposal stages. She wanted to know what other people thought about what Salango was proposing.
“It ended up being an all-out war of comments,” she said.
A friend told her they knew Salango and said that he was earnest in trying to do something for kids in the area. She decided to reach out to him and tell him her concerns.
Salango liked her idea. He asked her to come to a public hearing about the complex and speak about her ideas, and she did.
“If there was ever a time when the phrase ‘speak the truth even if your voice shakes’ [applies]. ... Oh, I was shaking. Because it means so much to me. I don’t want to do anything wrong.
“I spoke, and the next thing I know, it’s a thing. It’s happening. It evolved fast, and I’m grateful. If it weren’t for Ben, I don’t think I would have had this opportunity with anyone else.”
Barker said the timing works out too; she’s not working right now because she’s caring for her elderly father and her uncle.
The Kanawha County Commission still needs to vote on Barker becoming the development center’s director, which will be a volunteer position. The youth center will be separate from the sports complex and they’ll have separate boards, Salango said. Barker has picked some of the members of the youth program’s board, which is expected to meet for the first time in the next two or three months, Salango said.
So far members include Charleston personality Jim Strawn; Salango’s wife, Tera Salango, a former Kanawha assistant prosecutor; Dr. Ravi Isaiah, director of the pastoral care department at Charleston Area Medical Center; Martin Black, director of the youth football league in Dunbar; and Megan Pennington, clinical instructor at the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University.
The youth development center will operate in the park’s existing clubhouse, which may need to be remodeled some, Salango said. Construction on the sports complex itself is expected to start in November. The youth development center could feasibly be in the clubhouse before the rest of the sports complex is done, Salango said.
If Shawnee’s youth development center is successful, Salango wants to use the model in other parts of the county, including eastern Kanawha County.
“You can really change lives with a program like that,” Salango said. “You give kids a chance to succeed and they will surprise you. They will succeed. If you take opportunity from them, it’s tough. It’s tough to climb your way out of that environment sometimes.”
Reach Lori Kersey at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.