Global Volunteers’ Community partner in Fayette county, West Virginia, the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) latest accomplishment is that they were able to purchase an old school building, work hard to repair and improve it, and, most recently, get it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. We are thrilled to celebrate the accomplishment of our long-time community partner, SALS, and the strides they are making in their community. Read on for details.
Fayette County in West Virginia faces some of the toughest challenges in the U.S. in terms of educational and job opportunities for their youth. At the end of 2019, the unemployment rate in the region was approximately six percent – and it doubled due to the public health crisis. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the average income for local workers is $21,000 a year, and some 20% lives below the federal poverty line. Some reports conclude that nearly 25% of residents have a total household income below 50% of the state median income. Things don’t look brighter for local youth as one in five people age 25 or older did not graduate high school, and only 15% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Fortunately, the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) has been fighting against the odds and working hard to change the lives of teenagers in Fayette. Founded in 1977, SALS’ main task was originally to educate local workers and others about labor law, unions, and organization. But over the years, SALS grew to include programs for low-income housing, weatherization and rehabilitation of homes, children, food assistance, and youth. As part of the programs for children, SALS offers early education and care services for young mothers and their children. They also help children grades K through 6 improve their reading skills, and they run an after-school program that provides children with meals and help with their homework. As part of the youth programs, SALS works as an alternative high school that provides education and mentorship to local youth so that they can seek careers in construction and related fields. They offer youth the chance to train and work building or remodeling low-income families’ homes. This benefits the local community and, at the same time, provides students with work experience.
In order to carry out more activities, SALS bought the building of a former high school in Oak Hill, West Virginia for $70,000, according to Dr. John David, SALS director. At the end of 2020, the SALS Historic Oak Hill School, as it is known, made local news when it was included in the National Register of Historic Places. The Register-Herald, the West Virginia newspaper covering the news, explains that The National Register of Historic Places is the federal government’s official list of historic properties worthy of preservation. The former school building will be listed as Oak Hill High School, as this was its original name when it was built in the 1920s. The building sits on the location of the original Oak Hill High, West Virginia’s first high school in 1904. And it was the first school constructed of masonry in the region following neoclassical architectural style, according to the newspaper.
John David explains the use and importance of this building for SALS and the local community: “The building sits in the middle of Oak Hill, a block off main street, on five acres. Part of that area was the site for a house we built for a local family. The building is configured as a “U” with the center being an auditorium/balcony seating 700 and underneath being a gym. The building has an annex in the rear that is used by the Department of Corrections for a Youth Reporting Center. The most recent tenant is West Virginia Rehabilitative Services, for which we had to build an accessible ramp and handicap restrooms. On the second floor, we have a Wi-Fi café and bunk rooms for about 150. The third floor is targeted for apartments someday, although an elevator plus extensive renovations are needed.”
The apartments SALS is hoping to build are meant for veterans and senior housing. But this is not the only benefit to the local community. The large natural gas-powered generator SALS owns allows the second floor of the building to serve as a county shelter in case of emergency. Jeffrey Smith, SALS construction manager, further revealed to The Register-Herald SALS’ vision for the building: “a vibrant downtown hub for cultural presentations, senior living, dining, physical education, housing counseling and community services.”
This designation is a major achievement that took several years to accomplish. But the work is far from over. For instance, the roof is leaking in spots. Fortunately, as David shared with the newspaper, with this historic designation, further restoration and re-purposing of the building will now be eligible for tax credits of up to 45%. David shared this encouraging new with Global Volunteers, and we celebrate it with him. Sadly, due to Covid-19, Global Volunteers was not able to help SALS with their community projects on the school building last year. But volunteers returned to West Virginia in July 2021 and future teams will collaborate with SALS to work on this building. We are currently looking for more volunteers who would like to join John David on building more infrastructure in the Fayette community and support for its local youth.
SALS and the local people in Fayette County are talented, hard-working, and resourceful, but they can certainly use a hand. That is why they have asked for our support, especially for their youth. Volunteer projects include much-needed building repair, after-school and GED tutoring, summer enrichment programs, and meal delivery. We are also looking for volunteers who would like to work with SALS renovating the dorm rooms and bathrooms at the Historic Oak Hill School. Will you join our efforts?
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