How a West Virginia nonprofit is helping a resilient coal community survive the pandemic

Two people gardening

When the residents of Wayne, West Virginia hit hard times in 2010 after the collapse of the coal industry, an already struggling community reeled from further economic devastation. In the midst of their despair, a group of volunteers came together to address the numerous housing concerns facing the community by hiring unemployed or underemployed individuals to construct affordable, environmentally friendly housing. That effort quickly took off into what’s known today as the nonprofit Coalfield Development, an organization determined to further help the community get on-the-job training. Founded by Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development now offers a suite of programs, including personal and academic development and employment-based social enterprises to help West Virginia residents.  

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Coalfield Development’s critical work in Wayne, West Virginia, became more important than ever to an already determined community.  

Although West Virginia doesn’t contain many dense population centers, its residents are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 due to high rates of underlying conditions like obesity, heart disease, and lung issues. With a poverty rate of 17.8 percent and job markets still reeling from the 2008 recession, the combined socioeconomic threat is tangible.  

“As with any economic crisis, it feels like it hits the most vulnerable first and the hardest, and it takes them the longest to claw out of it,” Brandon says. “So it’s just going to take a bad situation and make it way worse.” 

But much like the resiliency of the people it serves, Coalfield is reacting to the pandemic with agility and flexibility, pivoting its programs and services to continue to meet the changing needs of the community at large. 

Its leaders responded rapidly and creatively to keep their teams employed and their community healthy. They sacrificed to keep “mission hires,” graduates of their workforce training program, on the payroll: All leadership-level staff took a pay cut, in addition to several layoffs and furloughs for non-mission hires. This quick reaction meant that at least 30 individuals kept their jobs despite the crisis. 

Meanwhile, three of Coalfield’s seven social enterprises pivoted their services to better meet the needs of the community and keep employees engaged. 

At SustainU, a Coalfield Development social enterprise that typically produces recycled clothing for live events, venues, and festivals, employees jumped into action on their own to sew masks for the pandemic response. They have already produced over 1,000 masks for local charities and hospitals and expect to continue production for the foreseeable future. 

At Saw’s Edge Woodshop, which usually builds home decor and furniture, the team began prototyping portable cots for emergency response teams. Although hospitals did not need the cots immediately, they are now included in local contingency plans to allow faster transitions to emergency response centers for future emergencies and hospitalization spikes. 

In both cases, the entrepreneurial teams also developed new direct-to-consumer and e-commerce operations that will remain part of the enterprises’ long-term strategy.  

At Refresh Appalachia, Coalfield’s agricultural venture that produces and provides healthy, locally-sourced food to its community, they are busier than ever. Refresh’s produce is sourced from regional farmers and grown at its own locations. These products are then distributed across the state, giving local farmers access to larger markets. 

Joab Dellinger, Refresh’s sales and distribution manager, says they’ve seen some of the highest demand in their history as some traditional supply chains dry up. As part of a farm collective, Refresh offers a solution for consumers who are avoiding the grocery store: an online farmer’s market with local contactless pickup.  

“It’s been a very hectic time,” says Joab. “But it’s been good stress, because we’ve had an awesome impact — almost more than what we’ve been able to have in the past.” 

The farm collective that serves as Refresh’s sales outlet is experiencing remarkable revenue growth. In May 2020 alone, it has nearly doubled sales from the entire second quarter of 2019.  

Most striking of all, the Refresh team is still growing. Coalfield Development leaders first tapped its construction workers from another enterprise to help meet the increased demand for food and keep them employed—but even that wasn’t enough. Now they’re working on approval to hire at least four full-time staff members.  

“I think things are only going to continue to grow,” says Joab. “Hopefully people will continue to appreciate what they’re able to get from right here in West Virginia.” 

“It feels like we’re going to have to figure out how to keep responding to these crises, whether it’s flooding, or hurricanes, or now, the pandemic. So it’s forced us to think through how we can use our resources to help people weather emergencies.”  

Brandon Dennison

To further help the community, Coalfield created a relief fund for families in southern West Virginia, and with the support of the Give Together Now campaign, led by Stand Together  and the Family Independence Initiative, they have been able to support ten families in Coalfield’s community. 

Once the families’ immediate needs are met, including food, clothing, and childcare, Brandon’s vision will return to the restorative work he and his team have been chipping away at for over a decade.  

“When you just go through crisis after crisis, you learn how to not get too high but not get too low and just kind of keep plodding ahead. So I think that’s just the mode that we’re in, just kind of doing what we do.” 

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Photo caption: Employees of Refresh Appalachia, a Coalfield Development social enterprise, tend a vegetable garden. 

Photo credit: Erica Baker