Economic & Community Evolutions in Southwest Virginia – Twenty Years of ATD Fourth World Movement Presence

In 1964, when then President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he chose a small coal mining community in eastern Kentucky to make the announcement. The poverty in Appalachia was a principal objective of that campaign which brought many anti-poverty projects to the region. In 1966, Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD Fourth World, traveled to the United States to understand this anti-poverty campaign on a large scale. In Appalachia, he was struck by the natural beauty but also by the isolation and poverty. He felt that ATD should have a presence there.

The contact with the region continued through correspondence with groups there and visits by ATD Fourth World Volunteer Corp members (Volunteers). In 1994, people from southwest Virginia attended the ATD Family Congress in New York. One delegate was Sr. Bernie Kenny, a nurse practitioner who dispensed free medical help from a mobile RV. She later invited ATD Fourth World to send Volunteers to the region and helped get a small house they could live and work from.

When ATD Fourth World Volunteers Fanchette and Vincent Fanelli arrived in the coal-field community in Dickenson County, Virginia, in 1995, most of the initial anti-poverty programs had gone, but a handful of the pioneer activists still remained. Among them were Sr. Bernie’s Health Wagon and the local Binns-Counts community center. At the time, the center hosted a preschool program, a housing repair program, clothing sales and social and cultural events.

The local Binns-Counts community center in Dickenson County, Virginia.
The local Binns-Counts community center in Dickenson County, Virginia.

Dickenson County had a “shell building” constructed in hopes of attracting small technology companies. The county, heavily reliant on coal mining, faced the “boom and bust” cycle of the coal industry. This small rural community, isolated in the mountains of southwest Virginia, was at the mercy of the national and global economic downswings. With the recession of 2008 more than half of the coal miners in the region lost their jobs in a two year period.

Strip mining on Reedy Ridge, Dickenson County.
Strip mining on Reedy Ridge, Dickenson County.

This mountainous region with its twisting and narrow roads needed a better infrastructure if it was to attract the technology industry. That hope lied in the Coalfields Expressway, a project that was announced shortly after the ATD Fourth World Volunteers arrived. The project envisioned a four-lane highway through the county and adjacent counties, from east to west.

From the start, Fanchette and Vincent allied themselves as much as possible with these hopes and the initiatives of local groups, especially the Binns-Counts center. Vincent began free computer classes there for adults and Fanchette helped with the clothing sales and social events. Both got to know more isolated families, visited them and kept in contact throughout the years. Through this presence and the contacts made by Sr. Bernie, Volunteers came to know the community residents and understand their needs. Vincent provided technical assistance to introduce computers in their record keeping at the Health Wagon and Fanchette did registration at their health fairs. In supporting these community efforts, they tried to make sure that the more marginalized residents were included in the programs.

Vincent and Fanchette visiting families.
Vincent and Fanchette visiting families.

For 22 years, ATD Fourth World Volunteers have chronicled the projects they ran and what they have seen happen in the community. The computer classes Vincent taught graduated over 500 adults but the hope that technology companies move there never materialized. The shell building remained empty for years until the county turned it into an education center, hoping that two community colleges in adjacent counties would hold classes there. That has not happened. The Coalfield Expressway still remains a project on paper for the county. A program to enable internet access to a county community ended after two years when federal seed money stopped and the private provider pulled out. Meanwhile, two call centers came and went after two years of operation. The most damaging setback was in the coal mining industry. Throughout the country, power plants switched from burning coal to cleaner, cheaper, and plentiful natural gas. Local coal mines closed with the resultant unemployment.

A dwindling population has forced schools to close and consolidate the remaining middle and high schools. Even with the school consolidation, budget problems have led to the elimination of vocational programs and art and music courses.

On the positive side, the goal to extend running water to all Dickenson County residents has succeeded. A third call center continues to operate after opening six years ago. The county is recognizing its other natural resource, the beauty of its mountains. County officials are promoting tourism by developing hiking, biking, and riding trails. They were banking on technology before, now they hope that tourism will be an answer to economic development. But could technology still be a viable option for this county?

A hiking trail in Dickenson County
A hiking trail in Dickenson County

In August 2015, the ATD Fourth World team opened a solar-robotics workshop to introduce young people to today’s technology with an informal and hands-on approach. The priority is to involve young people who have dropped out of school or who have no steady employment. The team advertises the workshop but the response has been very limited. People in the area see the value in the project but factors like transportation, lack of resources, and lack of confidence in one’s ability, point to the need of more direct contact and a support group to increase outreach.

The ATD Fourth World solar-robotics project faces the same challenge that the other initiatives faced. It needs to be linked to a comprehensive approach that takes account of other efforts, creating a global approach to community development. It is this new kind of War on Poverty that this southwest Virginia county and many other communities in the country need. Otherwise, the risk is continued pockets of hard-core rural poverty that betray the dream of America.

In 2006, ATD Fourth World Appalachia team opened its own center, the Learning Co-op. A photo of the Learning Co-op in 2017.