For the past decade, hope has been in short supply for many southern West Virginians. The Mountain State has led the nation in drug overdoses, with southern counties faring even worse. Raging floodwaters in June 2016 left many without homes. And less than four years later, the COVID-19 global pandemic triggered isolation and job loss in an already economically-strapped rural region.
“That type of devastation causes long-term effects,” said April Vestal, director of West Virginia University Institute for Community and Rural Health. But Vestal and her team are hoping to help “inspire hope” for these folks, specifically those who are struggling with substance use disorder in a seven-county area — Clay, Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Summers and Webster.
The Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a two-year, nearly $500,000 grant to WVU for the project, “West Virginia Inspiring Hope,” to enhance and expand the existing recovery-to-work ecosystem, including training, job placement, recovery treatment, housing and transportation.
The project will capitalize on the current network of state and local partners, including Fruits of Labor, a nationally certified culinary and agricultural training center for individuals in recovery; God’s Way Home, a provider of recovery coaching and support, as well as housing for individuals experiencing homelessness in recovery; and Seneca Health Services, a behavioral health organization that provides medication-assisted services, individual and group counseling, peer recovery support, case management, and 24/7 crisis services. The project will provide recovery and workforce development services to 42 workers/trainees affected by a substance use disorder to prepare them for the workforce.
“This project is near and dear to my heart,” said Vestal, a lifelong Rainelle resident. She said she saw homelessness impact her town for the first time in her life following the 2016 flood. She also underscored the impact of the pandemic on the Mountain State — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a nearly 40% increase in drug overdose deaths from August 2019 to August 2020.
While she’s seen the struggles of Greenbrier County residents, she’s also seen their successes. She said the partnering organizations are already changing the lives of those in need. “They bring folks in and they give them a new purpose. The transformation is phenomenal to see,” she said. “This grant will help grow that mission.”
For example, the grant will cover the purchase of a 15-passenger van to help transport folks to educational opportunities or appointments, as there are few public transportation options in the rural areas.
Vestal said the project aims to engage 10% of the businesses in the seven-county area to develop an improvement council to ensure these efforts are sustainable over time. The team will also work to educate the community at-large about the negative impact of stigma surrounding substance use disorder.
“If you see something, you have to do something,” she said. “We saw the need and we wanted to try to address it. We’re thankful to WVU, which allows us the autonomy to do that. It will be a challenge, but we’re ready for it.”