VISTAs of West Virginia: Courtney Summers Chose West Virginia to Be Home and She Hopes More Young People Will Follow

Courtney Summers, AmeriCorps VISTA in Fairmont

It’s no secret that West Virginians are working hard to address the challenge of population decline. Many young people seeking opportunity leave the state to pursue their dreams and opportunities in other parts of the country. Even rarer are young people who choose to move to the Mountain State to make it their home. Becoming an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) is a pathway for young people to come to West Virginia and spend time helping communities while growing their professional skills.

Courtney Summers is one of those people. She is currently serving in the Fairmont, WV community as an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Engagement Coordinator with the Fairmont Community Development Partnership.

Courtney is originally from the Seattle area and was teaching in Maryland when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world. Courtney had to create fully virtual lessons to teach her special education students. While the education field was rapidly changing around her, Courtney’s dreams shifted as well. She changed the focus of her master’s program from instructional design to business administration. Teaching in new ways opened her eyes to different opportunities in her career.  

Courtney shares, “I didn’t have much professional experience outside of teaching so I thought AmeriCorps would be a great way for me to gain experience. I had a previous roommate who had been in AmeriCorps so I saw how much she had gotten out of it.”

“I have family in West Virginia,” Courtney explains about how she decided on the state for her VISTA opportunity. “My husband and I were wanting to leave Maryland. We were exploring our options, and I have previously lived in Garrett County, Maryland, so I was familiar with North Central WV and I really liked it.”

Though Courtney has had to adjust to the change of moving from living near a big city to a more rural setting, she has found ways to make it feel like home. She’s been able to tap into her love for nature that she developed while living in the Pacific Northwest. While moving to the area has been a culture shock for Courtney, it is one that she has embraced fully.

She says her time spent in Fairmont as a VISTA has been rewarding. She helped to lead a capacity assessment for her organization and used what she found to make recommendations for how to improve and better serve the mission of the Fairmont Community Development Partnership. She tackled creating policies for the organization, including social media policy, gift acceptance guidelines, and a grievance policy within the organization. The kind of detail-oriented work that is necessary to get the work of serving a community done well.

“I had only done things like that in theory during my studies, so being able to put my knowledge to use was fun,” Courtney expresses. “I’m also really loving the communications and marketing aspect of my service, it’s opened up a whole new possible career path for me.”

Courtney’s pride in the community and what she has been able to contribute thus far shines when she speaks of her work. She also shared about challenges she is facing as a young woman coming into a new field, saying, “[It has] been a challenge to be taken seriously, especially as a female under 35. Growing up on the West Coast in Washington, it’s different as a woman there than it is here, at least from my personal experience.” 

Courtney shares that a focus on professional development, research into her work, and practicing being bold in her communications with others has supported her in addressing challenges. 

As her time as a VISTA in Fairmont comes to an end, Courtney sees a bright future for West Virginia, but it will take more young people getting involved. Courtney is seeing the positive changes happening in her own community, and she is optimistic about great things happening around the state.

“We need to show young people that they do have a future here. People tend to have a negative perspective about West Virginia and believe all sorts of stereotypes,” Courtney explains. “Having lived here and been part of the positive changes, it’s been eye-opening. The [people] who are part of the revitalization and community building need to continue to reach out to younger ones, especially women and minorities, and get them involved and let their voices be heard.”

It’s all about what you make of it, Courtney admits. Yet, her time living in West Virginia as a VISTA has opened her eyes to what is happening and just how much of an impact someone can make in the Mountain State. West Virginia is filled with opportunities and potential she hasn’t seen in other places she has lived, and that is something exciting to witness.

The West Virginia Development Hub hosts AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) members in communities participating in our coaching programs as well as in partnership with organizations around the state. The Hub currently has VISTA sub-sites  in Fairmont, Morgantown, Rainelle, Clarksburg, Elkins, and other communities. The VISTA program was founded in 1965 and is an anti-poverty program providing needed resources to nonprofit organizations and public agencies to help lift communities out of poverty. The VISTA program places volunteers 18 years or older into communities where they perform a year of full-time volunteer service.

In the VISTAs of West Virginia series, you’ll learn more about the VISTAs working in Hub communities uplifting economic and community development teams around the state.

Interested in becoming a VISTA? Check out current opportunities through The Hub »

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For too long, who and what it means to be a West Virginian has been defined for us. It’s time to redefine the Mountain State in our own words and in the eyes of the world. West Virginia can be anything we want it to be – let’s redefine it together.

Parsons

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Message from our Executive Leadership Team

Fifteen years ago, stakeholders building up local communities and economies in West Virginia convened to map a coordinated strategy to systemically grow community economic development activity in the state. From the shared vision and collaborative leadership of dozens of strategic partners across the state, the WV Community Development Hub was born.

Since that time, The Hub has grown into the anchor community development organization serving West Virginia. We have built upon the original vision to create a method for rural, community-led development strategies that is uniquely tailored to the needs and opportunities of our state.

As we have grown and developed a proven model for success, our partnerships with community and economic development practitioners, funders, and committed West Virginia residents have been foundational to every element of our work.

Over the past two years, the team at The Hub has adapted to the unprecedented challenges our communities have faced during the pandemic by leaning into our core strengths to deepen our impact. The Hub remains committed to tackling persistent challenges, and we have focused our attention on the most impactful elements of our work.

We are supporting community leaders to advance their visions for local development, creating new pathways for engagement and leadership growth through our virtual training platform, and leading strategies that lift up voices of community leaders to move forward solutions to long-held challenges to growth.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that nothing about the future is set in stone. While the coming year may present enormous opportunities for advancement in our state, they will also inevitably require significant capacity building, shared strategies that are grounded in trust-based partnerships, and extended efforts to support the leadership development of individuals and organizations who have been asked to do more during a time of extreme stress and strain.

The services that anchor organizations like The Hub provide are even more critical in this time, and we expect our work to scale significantly in the coming years ahead.

We look forward to continuing to do the work of putting into action the vision and the shared strategies envisioned by that core group of community economic development practitioners and funders fifteen years ago.

In Continued Accompaniment,

– WV Community Development Hub
Executive Leadership Team

Stephanie Tyree

Executive Director

Amanda Workman Scott

Director of Community Engagement

Emma Pepper

Director of Strategic Network Communications

Katie Loudin

Director of Strategic Development

Montgomery

Residents participated in the Cultivate WV program to kickstart community and economy building. Read their community case study.

Smithers

Residents participated in the Cultivate WV program to kickstart community and economy building. Read their community case study.

Kingwood

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Lewis County

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Meadow River Valley Region

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Read their community case study.

Monticello Neighborhood of Clarksburg

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Watch their community documentary.

New Martinsville

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Read their community case study.

Systemic Change

2021 became a time period of catalytic potential as we saw years of investment into our core strategies to enact systemic change yield new results. Our strategic focus areas include policy, communications, and supporting the community economic development system in leveraging unique financing opportunities such as the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Initiative and Opportunity Zones.

In addition, through our strategic policy support role within the Abandoned Properties Coalition, The Hub successfully advanced two key objectives: the creation of a statewide land bank at the West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation and extension of the state’s Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit. 

Through the Opportunity Appalachia program, 6 catalytic community projects located in WV-based Opportunity Zones received $250,000 for pre-development technical assistance. Three projects received additional private funding as a result of program participation.

Community Coaching

In 2021, we accompanied 16 communities through our in-depth, professional coaching programs. In addition to leaning into coaching and financing opportunities offered through these programs, participating communities leveraged an additional $2.8 million in funding on their own for community economic development projects. While participating in our entry-level coaching program, Cultivate WV, Montgomery and Smithers realized momentum-building success through access to $40,000 in seed funding for projects like farmers markets, public art, wayfinding, community events, and development of a trail system.

Six communities, Lewis County, Kingwood, Meadow River Valley, Monticello neighborhood in Clarksburg, New Martinsville and Parsons, graduated the intermediate planning program Blueprint Communities* with strategic plans in place. We also launched a new round of HubCAP, our flagship community economic development program, in six towns located in the Monongahela National Forest region: Cowen, Franklin, White Sulphur Springs, Elkins, Marlinton, and Petersburg.

Elkins

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies. 

A core team led by Woodlands Development Group also participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Franklin

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Marlinton

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Petersburg

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

White Sulphur Springs

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Charleston

A core team led by Crawford Holdings, LLC participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Huntington

Core teams led by Thundercloud, Inc. and the City of Huntington participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support community development projects located in Opportunity Zones.

Grafton

A core team led by Unleash Tygart, Inc participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Leadership Development

As hundreds of people began to engage in our virtual training activities in 2020, we saw a critical opportunity to scale and deepen our impact. This year, The Hub team developed an accessible, virtual platform with options for self-guided and group learning activities as well as professional coaching.

Kickstart Communities is now the crux of our efforts to bring new people into the work and grow their leadership. These activities now form the foundational stages of a Community Leadership Development Pipeline to move motivated residents from seeing the challenges in their communities to proactively collaborating to resolve them.

Cowen

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies. Read their community case study.