In 1960, John F. Kennedy campaigned in the southernmost West Virginia county, promising to send help if elected president.
With former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964 and the succession of federal programs — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — tens of thousands of McDowell residents were lifted above a sub-standard living.
In December 2001, the West Virginia Department of Education staged another intervention in McDowell County, taking control away from the local entities, instituting emergency funding and staging reorganization efforts. In 2013, the county school system returned to self-governance. Since then, numerous efforts have been made to raise McDowell County above its past and persistent hardships.
Because of a three-year $300,000 Aspire contribution by AT&T, about 20 McDowell County high school students each year will have the opportunity to participate in the Reconnecting McDowell program, Broader Horizons. Reconnecting McDowell was launched in 2011 with the intent of revitalizing the county on an economic, social and educational level.
Through Broader Horizons, students will participate in college campus visits and job shadowing programs in Charleston and Washington, D.C. Students are chosen by their principals based primarily on personal motivation.
J. Michael Schweder, president of AT&T Mid Atlantic, said the program really started about six years ago.
“We started (the program) six years ago here in Charleston when the American Federation of Teachers came and made a presentation about this partnering and mentorship program,” he said.
After following up with the program and finding it worked, Schweder said he’s not looking to reinvent the wheel.
“What is important to us is to … not reinvent the wheel, but support programs that make a difference in communities all across our country,” he said. “If it makes a difference in a couple dozen and that’s the progress, it’s worth doing.”
AT&T is one of 125 partners for Reconnecting McDowell.
According to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the mentoring aspect of the program is extremely important and affords students the opportunity to talk to someone outside of their home/school environment.
Each student will be assigned a mentor and the pair will meet regularly to discuss school, life issues and choices and future possibilities.
Currently, there are about two dozen mentors and all mentor participation is voluntary.
Not only does the private-public partnership offer students a listening ear, but also a preview of possible life, educational and job opportunities.
“This program provides a unique opportunity to widen students’ horizons and introduce them to the world of higher education and career possibilities,” Weingarten said. “Seeing a world within their reach beyond McDowell is an extraordinary motivator to dream their dreams and work hard to achieve them.”
Gayle Manchin, West Virginia Board of Education president and chair of Reconnect McDowell, agrees the possibilities offered through Broader Horizons are endless.
“Reconnecting McDowell and AT&T are offering these students, and certainly students across our state, this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the world beyond McDowell County, maybe even beyond West Virginia,” she said. “It does provide that business connection, that mentoring opportunity and internships that could be available through job shadowing.”
According to Schweder, the mentor/internship program works to expose students to their expressed interests, as well as opportunities that might awaken new interests.
“I think what the program does is not only take into account what their interests are,” he said. “I think what it wants to do is open up a whole new horizon for (the students) to look at lots of different opportunities and maybe not something that was their (main) interest at that moment. I think it works both ways.”
Regardless of which direction the student may ultimately choose, Schweder said “it’s all positive, whichever direction they end up going.”
For the week of April 21, Manchin said selected students had a whirlwind of a schedule, going to the Clay Center, seeing the state museum, doing job shadowing and visiting West Virginia State University.
Manchin said she also discussed asking good questions, listening, being proactive, giving back to the community and volunteering with the students.
“Every child needs to know it’s important that they finish school, be engaged in their learning and (know) that they’re building a dream of what they want to be, where they want to go,” she said. “It’s all been very informative and educational but also entertaining and engaging.”
In June, students will spend a week in Washington, D.C. and plan to visit the University of Maryland at College Park, NBC’s Washington Bureau and the Capitol Hill offices of West Virginia’s congressional representatives.
Emily Hicks, a junior at Mount View High School and a participant in the program, echoed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s recent proclamation that the Broader Horizons program offers students the opportunity to find their passion and provides the support and freedom to achieve their goals.
“People have come where we’ve come,” she said. “They’ve gone and made a big difference and I hope to do the same. I am bigger than my hometown.”