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The Listening Project: Stories of Resilience in West Virginia

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Share your strength. Share your struggle. Share your story.

The Listening Project gathers stories of strength and struggle as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic in West Virginia. West Virginians are resilient. We are responding, adapting, and organizing. Yet, economic and health crises continue to unequally impact communities, families, women, and children. This listening project is a platform where West Virginians can share our stories, empower one another, and communicate our hopes to create change and transformation in our state. 

We hope that this initiative enables us to be a part of something deeper, together. We are striving to capture our stories, in this unprecedented moment, to create a public archive of our collective experiences that is long-lasting and revisited. It is a commemoration that honors our struggle and our resilience. You are offering and we are cherishing!

As we commit to this process of sharing and learning, we might ask ourselves: What is the source of our strength? In what ways do we struggle? Where do we see solidarity in our communities? We want to hear from you. 

This Fall, The Listening Project will be launching a website, where you can listen to and read the stories of your fellow West Virginians as well as enroll in the project yourself. Sharing your own story will welcome you into a community of participants that will continue to build bonds of friendship and have meaningful conversations with one another about the struggle and strength of this resilient state.

These stories are our lifeblood. They have the power to connect us to our fellow human beings in deep ways. These different perspectives and shared experiences are the first steps to designing a new pathway forward. Below are excerpts from four of the listening project participants:


-Amber R., 40 years old, St. Albans, WV

Listen to Amber’s thoughts on resiliency here:

"My name is Amber. I’m from St. Albans, West Virginia. I’m 40 years old. I met my husband in 2004. We got married in 2016. He had two kids from a previous relationship. So, I have two step kids that are my bonus children. Our first son together was born in 2006. In 2011, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He went into remission pretty quickly and relapsed and was diagnosed again. In 2018, he finished treatment. My youngest son was born in 2008. He's 12 and he's a football player. He is mildly autistic. I work for a company that takes care of mentally challenged individuals, and I am a direct care staff at an all deaf home. I love my job. I have my associate’s degree in American Sign Language, and that’s pretty much it. That’s me."

"I’m outspoken. I say what people don’t like to hear and, you know, I keep it real.”

What is the source of your strength? What keeps you going?

“My kids and my family. Mostly my kids. I want them to have a better life than I had growing up.

 Not that I really had a bad life. I didn't really have a bad life growing up. I didn't. You know, my mom had some mental illness that caused some friction at home occasionally. And it was a tough environment at times. We weren't abused by any means, you know? but we were total latchkey kids. Completely and totally, but not because my mom was out doing bad stuff.

 She was working all the time. My dad was working all the time. So, you know, that was the extent of it. My sister took care of me until I was old enough to fend for myself. And then we did our own things, but I don't want my kids to have that. I try to be involved in anything and everything that they want to do because, I remember in high school, I was in the band and on the flag corps and my mom and dad only ever came to one football game, my whole entire high school career.

 And that was on senior night when they walked me across the field. I've only ever missed, I think, three events that are my kids' events ever since they started T-ball at four years old. So that's where I draw my strength from… is my kids.”

In what ways have you struggled?

Listen to Amber speak about her struggles here:

“Thanks to the stimulus check that we got, we were doing really good there for a minute.

And then now it's like, literally, there's no food in my house right now. And I had to take my son to a doctor's appointment this morning and he said, mom, can we stop and get something to eat on the way home? And we stopped and got food. And I got a text message from my bank saying that my bank account was overdrawn.

 So I'm actually $2 in the hole right now. And I don't get paid for Friday and I have no food in our house.”

 So, how do you fill in those gaps? Because I know you do.

 “A lick and a prayer. Luckily, I have a dozen and a half eggs, we can make some egg sandwiches, you know what I mean? Or, there's ramen noodles in the pantry so we can eat ramen noodles. But like, I mean, we legit go on broke food if we have to. And my kids are so spoiled. You know, I grew up on that stuff. That stuff's not broke food to me. That's like… food. So my kids are spoiled enough that they're like, ‘I don't want sandwiches, mom. I want real food.’ And I'm like, ‘sandwiches are real food! It's food that you put in your gut for it to not hurt. It's real.’” 

——

“There were times that I would have to call my mom on a Monday and be like, can I borrow 20 bucks until Friday when I get paid and make that $20 last for a family of four for food for the week?”

What does your support system look like?

Listen to Amber speak about her support system here:

“I'm sorry, support system? What's that? I'm kidding. I kid, I kid. In all honesty, I kind of… I'm not kidding. Like, I don't really have a support system per se, but I also don't really feel like I need the support system. I feel like I'm more of a support system for my friends and my husband…”

——

“My dad passed away six years ago, and I just got his headstone paid off so that they will install it.  I've not been able to put flowers on my dad's grave for six years because they wouldn't put his headstone down until it was paid for. They wouldn’t even make it until it was paid for. So, it might be there before Father’s Day. Maybe.

And that's hard for me, too. When my dad passed away, that changed me as a person. And then one year, one month, and two days later, my best friend who was like a brother passed away of brain cancer. So, some very significant people in my life are gone. When I had a hard day or when I got into an argument with my mom, or if my husband and I got into an argument, I always would call my dad and my dad would pep talk me.

You know, ‘you're doing a good job. You're a good mom. You're a good wife.’ And then my dad passed away. So I would call Steve. And I would talk to Steve and Steve would say, ‘you're a good mom. You're a good wife. You're doing a great job.’ And then he's gone. So I have nobody now. I have like one or two friends really that I would call like really close friends, but they live out of state. So it's not like I can just be like, ‘Hey, let's go have some drinks and let our hair down.’ I don't have that.”

So with everything in your life, what do you do to decompress? Or do you decompress? Is it a defense mechanism where we just keep going and we keep going?

“Yeah. I don't have a chance to decompress. I just don't because I have a husband who's disabled with a traumatic brain injury. So it's not like I can just be like, ‘I'm going on a girl's trip. Deuces!’ And leave him with the kids because he is going to end up calling me 152 million times to ask, ‘How do I make this macaroni and cheese out of a box?’

“My decompression time is when I'm at work. And away from home. That's the only time I'm ever away from home, you know, with the exception of right now, because I'm supposed to be painting.

 (Laughter)

We won’t tell!”

——

“I would love to be able to even decompress as a family and take a trip, you know, go do something, but we can't have it. Like we can't even afford to drive to Hawks Nest. You know what I mean? Like I can't… My husband and I went to Columbus like three weeks ago. It was an overnight trip. And we stayed in a hotel and it broke us. But we went for a funeral, not just to, you know, ‘Hey, lets go on a weekend trip!’ I would love to, 100% keeping it real right now, I have not been to the beach since 1997. I would love to.”

  

Barabara, Registered nurse, Marmet, WV.

Co-founder of The Marmet Bucket Brigade. 

 

What is the source of your strength? 

“I think it's the way that I was raised. I was raised as a part of a huge family that always underscored your strength and that there was nothing that you could not do. I've had people say I would like to be as assertive as you are throughout my life, because it just does not occur to me to stand back and wait, you know?”

“My parents were very politically active. One of my earliest memories is in 1960... I think it was 1960. Well, around then, I don't even know now. I can remember, we always had a huge garden and as a child, you worked in that garden - you played, but you know, you learned as you grew. And I was about five and we had been working in the garden and my parents said, "Come on, we have to clean up." Went in and put on like our Sunday clothes, got cleaned up and put on Sunday clothes, and walked through the field to see John Kennedy in the back of the pickup truck, making a stunt speech when he was campaigning for president. And so, my father was a union leader and you just learned that you had a civic responsibility. You don't wait for other people. You get out and help.”

“To live a useful life…” 

“…You serve [your] family first and then you draw others in and make them a piece of that family, if that's what you need to do. And you serve your community.”

In what ways are you struggling?

“I don't even know if I can talk about this. And, as you can imagine, because of the way we grew up, my family is really close.”

“At the end of January, the COVID was on my radar… My one brother, at the end of January, his wife had a brain aneurysm and died. She was a lot younger than us. She was 53 and she was at Ruby. He went home to where they lived in West Virginia that night, and he had a traumatic fall and bled to death… Within 12 hours, we lost both of those really important family members. Plus, my husband is ill, so he's very at risk [for COVID]. He hasn’t been anywhere.”

“I've heard some horrific stories about some of my nursing friends going to work in their scrubs and stopping for gas and having people yell at them about spreading the virus and just being crazy.”

“We're living through the close of an age… When one age closes, another age opens. If you look at history, that is a really chaotic, uproarious time that lasts for many years… When you go from this to that, it's just going to be chaotic - people lose their jobs, they have to relearn, sometimes they never get another job, there is resistance to change. If you don't change, die now… If you look at the continuum of time, really look at it, we are just a speck of dust on that…”

“There is a science behind change and for change to occur, there has to be a desire to be different from where you are and how you want to be. When you get those things closer together, that’s when change actually has the opportunity to occur. It’s difficult and there are stages… They are not linear; they are sometimes cyclical. Sometimes they bounce back and forth like a pendulum on a metronome… Most people have a hard time with change. They shouldn’t, because from the moment that you are born every day you change. And even after you die, you change… We’re clusters of cells, so it’s never ending.” 

Where have you seen solidarity in your community?

“I think the solidarity that we're seeing is on social media, but it’s polarizing… It’s kind of frightening to see to me, to be really honest. I don’t think we can talk about [COVID-19] without touching on the political. It bothers me that the science has been totally ignored by the feds in lieu of politicizing this in order to make money and to, hopefully, garner reelection.”

“I wish that I had known when I was a little girl about the 1918 pandemic, because my grandmother and her family, her sisters lived through that. I would love to have had a conversation about that with her. I'm sorry that we didn't learn about those things, because that would have been very interesting.”

“I don't think that this is going to be over the way people think it is because I think we will forever do things differently."


Taylor, Mother of two Girls, Weston, WV.


 What is the source of your strength?

“Our kids. And us. We realized - my grandma always said it is completely different living with somebody than living with that same person and being married. And we didn't realize what she meant until almost our first, whole year of being married. We had our problems. And finally, one day we sat down and we talked, and you know, it's like you’re my shoulder, I'm your shoulder. We've got to talk to each other when things are bothering us. We've learned not to scream and yell when we get arguments… I'm waiting for him to pop his head around the door and be like, really?”

If you had to imagine a better West Virginia for your kids or for even you as a mom, as your kids get older, what would that look like?

“I'm sure you've been following a lot of my posts with this Black Lives Matter stuff. My thing is, you can't love somebody or act like you love somebody when you have hatred in your heart. And I'm bad about that. I watched, for instance, my grandpa, my pappi, my best friend, when he passed away, he had so much patron built up in his heart for years that it stopped him from really showing love and everything else… It stopped him from really loving and being loving and caring and compassionate… If I had to picture a perfect West Virginia, basically a perfect world? It's never going to happen. It's never going to happen because people talk about it and they want it to happen, but they don't do anything for it to happen. Until we get all of the racism out of our hearts, the judgmental parts out of our hearts… It’s never gonna be perfect.”

“A perfect world would be: nobody has to struggle no more. Your tax right off shouldn’t define you who you are as a person. And if it does, then you need to take another look at life. Just because you got a six figure bank account, and that keeps climbing every week, that doesn't make you a good person.” 

In what ways are you struggling? 

“You know, raising two kids 15 months apart is not as easy as it looks. Trust me. Between diapers, formula, food, baby food - it was so hard. I even had WIC and there were some things on WIC you could not buy. Oh, it was, it was really hard. And then, you know, having food stamps and having an iPhone, people would just look and be like, “Wow, you can afford that and get like welfare too.”

“You know, I worked at Walmart and, when they say you see everything on Walmart? By God, you do. I mean, some woman tried to steal a bunch of baby food so that way she could be able to feed her kid. On top of the other stuff that she had bought, she couldn't afford the extra baby food… I told my boss, “Just take it out of my paycheck.” I'd rather see your baby's being fed than her starving, and then being taken away because she couldn't afford to buy food.”

“… [My] biggest motivation is, everyone says reach for the sky, but there's so much past it. You have the stars, you have the moon. I’m like “Just go!” You don't know how far that is. Just keep shooting for it. Keep going further and further until you're living comfortably or whatever it is.”

“How are people gonna recover? You know? It's like our friend, she called me and she said, “Have you got your food stamps?” And I said, “Yes, why what's wrong?” And she said, they're not going to give us ours because her husband makes too much money on unemployment. But a lot of people aren’t getting their unemployment. It’s been so hard to get it…” 

 Where have you seen solidarity in your community?

“I love my neighborhood. I'll always love my neighborhood. We stepped up and we took care of one another, but we do that all the time. Like, you know, my grandma needs help weeding or my neighbors - we're going to help them. But that's just how our neighborhood works.”

“…It would take an act of God to change the minds of a lot of people, because everyone is so set in their ways here that they're not wanting change.”


Janella, 85, Huntington, WV

Worked in the public school system for 38 years.

 

What is the source of your strength?

“Well,  number one, the source of my strength is my relationship with God. That's the source of my strength. I go to Him. Listen, Valentina, don't get this one twisted, okay? Now, I'm far from being perfect, but I don't run from God. When things are beyond what I can do, I run to Him. I have no way: number one. He is my choice.”

 In what ways are you struggling?

“I do everything on my own. I make all my own decisions right now…”

“It is so difficult right now… I see a lot of people are hurting and they need somebody. But here you are, and you want to do the right thing, and not break the law or just what they ask you to do so you will be safe… I find this thing to be very, very difficult because I don’t like being at home; I like being able to go where I want to go… But I don’t want to endanger somebody else or endanger myself.”

 Where have you seen solidarity in your community?

“The best is yet to come, you know what? I believe that. I want to believe the best is yet to come because, as a race of people, we have come a long way. You know it and I know it. It’s not where we should be because there should not have ever been this kind of segregation, ever, not even in this day and even years ago, back when our great grandparents were slaves. But in this day and time? You tell me why…this stuff is still going on. Who perpetrates this kind of evil? And it is evil.”

“…When I see people being mistreated unfairly, for no reason at all, it just messes me up. I’m not quiet about it, okay? I know I don’t have that great big voice. But I can sure pray for them... that things get better for them.”