My romance with West Virginia officially began when I met my partner – Bill is from Ona, WV – while we were in grad school. But really, Appalachia had my heart long before that. I hail from Belfast, a town in rural western New York. With a population of 1,663, it’s located in one of 3 counties in New York State that are considered a part of “Greater Appalachia.” In practice, my hometown shares more in common with the rest of Appalachia than with its own state.
So, when I came to WV for the first time, I was both an outsider, completely in awe of its gray and rugged beauty, and a wanderer coming home.
Growing up in Belfast made clear the many challenges that communities face. Folks close to me struggled, and it sparked an insatiable hunger inside me to become someone who makes change, because the issues I was seeing were happening all over the world.
Although I loved my hometown, I left and went to school, hoping to learn skills in community development that I could use elsewhere. One of the things that rural, western New York does not share with West Virginia is an overwhelming sense of place and belonging, of home, and looking back on my decision, I’m sure I was looking for that as well.
My wandering took me many places, most importantly to this story, I spent several months working on an agricultural development project in rural Sierra Leone.
When I wasn’t mapping value chains for livestock vaccinations, I spent time listening to the small farmers I was living with. They taught me that it isn’t the work that one person does which enables a community to reshape the challenges it faces. Rather, it is the power of the community together – folks who live together and work for the collective good – who are able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, if I wanted to support communities in doing this, I was responsible to share equal accountability for the outcome of our efforts – something that was impossible for me to do in that moment as someone who would soon be leaving.
I remembered conversations that my partner and I had had about his love for his family, his home, and his desire to do right by his community; about the similarities between his hometown and mine and our mutual desire to live in a community like the one he came from. When I met him at the airport, we were already headed to WV.
It took us about 3 years from that moment to make it back to WV, but there was never a doubt that this is where we were headed. During that time we’ve built even stronger connections to our family and our community. For the first time in my life, I can say that I am equally accountable for the work that we do together.
For me, this is the community, the home that I have been looking for. Nowhere else will do.