As a reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, in 2010 and 2011 Zack Harold spent a lot of time back in his home community covering the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine accident. He’s a Boone County boy himself, went to Sherman High School, as did many from Whitesville.
In that dark season five years ago, Zack retuned to the people and places he had grown up with, listened to their grief, and wrestled with words for the paper that would adequately capture the loss, anger and confusion.
Zack Harold is now managing editor of West Virginia Focus magazine, and in 2015 there’s a new story bringing him back to Whitesville. The name of the initiative is Turn This Town Around, and for the people here it is a moment of rejuvenation and reinvention, a chance to make headlines on their own terms.
Although every community that has been selected to participate in Turn This Town Around is excited by the opportunity, nowhere have we seen the level of community buy-in, passion and commitment that we are now seeing in Whitesville.
At their first public Turn This Town Around meeting, 143 people showed up – more than a quarter of the entire population. They have already begun fundraising, prioritizing projects, gathering recruits. The can-do spirit of Turn This Town Around Whitesville was initially embodied in a small group of local leaders, but it has now spread to well and truly energize the entire community.
Like a town whose high school football team has made it to state, messages of inspiration and encouragement decorate shop windows and business. Above the main street they have hoisted a giant yellow banner: “Welcome to Whitesville. Official Turn This Town Around Community.”
Though one could easily assume the obvious narrative that the town’s current optimism and strength was borne from the tragedy of five years ago, I think that’s a convenient characterization that misses the real heart of the town. And the people of Whitesville themselves certainly do not dwell on that wellspring.
Enough has been written and said about the devastation wrought on the community in 2010 without having to credit that low moment as the catalyst for everything positive that follows. The people of Whitesville honor and remember their past, but are firmly focused now on reinvention.
What has really impressed me about the people of Whitesville is not just their energy and enthusiasm, but their wholehearted acceptance of the fact that there is no one waiting in the wings – no government agency, no magic foundation or corporation – to rescue their community. That responsibility rests with them.
During my visits to Whitesville this year I have witnessed more than once the profound insight from a citizen that “it doesn’t matter what caused the coal industry to go the way it did. It’s happening, and that’s the reality we have to work with.”
If there was ever a place that probably had a right to feel sorry for itself – to bemoan tragedy and circumstance – it was Whitesville. But you get the feeling they are ready to move on, to roll up the sleeves and starting building the foundations of a new future.
It is our great honor to help them do so.