It’s not easy to run for office, start a business, found a nonprofit, or dedicate your life to helping others. But the women in these pages aren’t worried about easy. They’re committed to doing the things necessary to make our state a better place to live. WV Living proudly presents the Wonder Women class of 2017.
“When people come to West Virginia, they fall in love with it,” says Chelsea Ruby, commissioner of the state Division of Tourism. She knows this from personal experience.
She grew up in Oklahoma and worked on Capitol Hill before taking a job with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office in 2012. Her first assignment? Organize the state’s 150th birthday bash. “It taught me more about West Virginia than I would have ever been able to learn in any other way. It made me fall in love with the people here.”
Since taking over as tourism chief in early 2017, Ruby is helping others feel the love, too. In June, the agency’s highly successful #almostheaven social media campaign reached more than 15 million people. Ruby says much of Tourism’s work is focused on getting people to West Virginia for the first time—since research shows more than 80 percent of first-time visitors will come back.
Heart for the Homeless
Community banking may be the perfect job for Charleston native Nada Kisner. Her father taught her to love numbers, and she has a natural instinct to help people. “Financing first vehicles, that’s a great feeling, handing them that check—‘Go enjoy your new car!’” says the community office manager at the Suncrest Centre location of First United Bank and Trust in Morgantown.
But Kisner spends a lot of her spare time helping those in even greater need, with a particular heart for the homeless. She’s been on the board at Caritas House in Morgantown, which provides HIV/AIDS and homeless services, for nine years, and a financial literacy class she developed and teaches at Christian Help got her on the board there in 2016 as well. In 2017, she’s started feeding the homeless at the Salvation Army every Wednesday. She also serves on the board of the Friends of WVU Medicine.
Lynne Fruth’s father opened Fruth Pharmacy in Point Pleasant in 1952 and grew the business into a chain of community drugstores. But she did not intend to go into the family business. She attended West Virginia University, where she earned a scholarship to play softball and received a bachelor’s degree in education. She then went to Marshall to get her master’s in education.
But after her father’s death, she watched as the company he built began to fail. She decided to take over and, at first, tried to balance her career in education with running the company. She quickly realized she couldn’t do both, though, and left her education career behind.
In the eight years since she took over, Fruth Pharmacy has expanded into 30 new locations. Fruth has also played her part in tackling the state’s drug epidemic by making her pharmacies the first in the state to sell naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses, over the counter.
Daring to Care
Spend 15 seconds with Malene Smith Davis and you’ll be inspired. She’s a successful businesswoman on a mission. As the new chair of the WVU Alumni Association’s board of directors, she is determined to motivate the university’s extensive alumni base to bring jobs to the state. “At every alumni function I attend, I ask everyone to think about how they can expand their business in West Virginia and then to do it. In just seven short months, we’ve been able to add half a million dollars of salaries to West Virginia.”
As the president and CEO of Capital Caring, one of the oldest and largest hospice and palliative care providers in the United States, she spends her days passionately serving patients faced with life-threatening illnesses. Prior to Capital Caring, Davis was president and CEO of Hospice Care Corporation in Arthurdale, where she still resides. Her company employs 1,000 people and serves 1,500 patients per day. Her goal is to help create a center for advanced illness care like none other—a place that marries a major university with a non-profit and major teaching hospital. “This will be revolutionary. It will change the way people are taken care of,” she says.
To Serve, Protect, and Inspire
Charlene Diggs didn’t realize she was making history until it was already made. As she was being sworn in as a Beckley police officer in April 2016, police chief Lonnie Christian pointed out that Diggs was the first black woman to ever serve on the force. “I had no idea,” she says.
Diggs became interested in law enforcement in high school, then earned a degree in criminal justice administration at Bluefield State College. She originally tried to get a job as a corrections officer, but then decided to apply for a job with her hometown police department. She wanted a job where she could help people with problems and help them make good life choices.
“It’s a blessing to break down that barrier,” she says. “I can only hope that it inspires young girls to become something positive in the community. The only person that can stop you is you.”
Sovereign of Salt
Nancy Bruns’ story is one for the history books. As a seventh-generation descendant of William Dickinson, who in 1813 established a major salt mining business in the Kanawha Valley, she returned to the family farm with her brother and revived this age-old industry. The business, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, has quickly become one of the most exciting culinary enterprises in West Virginia.
The company has turned the tables on the industry—you’ll find it in fine restaurants all over the country and pantries all over the state. And they keep adding products like grinding salt, popcorn salt, chocolate, soaps, and locally hand-carved wooden saltcellars. Without a doubt, Nancy, who graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, is helping to establish Malden as “the salt making capital of the East,” just as her ancestor did 200 years ago.
Making Things Happen
Ohio native Joelle Connors moved away from Wheeling after graduating from West Liberty University. But she returned to town in 2008 to become marketing director for the City of Wheeling. “That position really marks the beginning of my career,” she says.
She helped create Reinvent Wheeling, which brings together city government, the local convention and visitors bureau, the local chamber of commerce, and other community groups to promote the city’s downtown. She continued this community-minded work later as business development specialist at the Regional Economic Development Partnership, and now as external affairs manager for American Electric Power.
Connors says she’s astounded by the growth of downtown Wheeling in recent years and loves the combination of big-city excitement and small-town togetherness. It’s the kind of place where anyone, if so inclined, can make a difference. “You can be as involved in this community as you want to be.”
Best Friend of the Cheat
Little did Amanda Pitzer know, when she collected stream bugs in high school in northwestern Pennsylvania in the mid-’90s, that river health would become her career. Her father-in-law to-be, Friends of Cheat (FOC) executive director Keith Pitzer, became her friend and mentor. Amanda was doing environmental education with Friends of Deckers Creek in Morgantown when Keith passed on in 2009. She stepped into his position in 2010 and has since grown the organization and professionalized its administration.
Under Amanda’s watch, FOC has restored more than 50 miles of the Cheat River and its mine drainage–tainted tributary Muddy Creek. Pollution-sensitive game fish are now migrating up from Cheat Lake into the once-dead canyon. FOC has also bought nearly 20 miles of rail corridor for development as rail-trail. If the organization achieves its goal of removing a low-head dam at Albright, it will be possible to paddle 192 miles from Snowshoe to the mouth of Cheat Lake—the longest continuous undammed stretch in the East. Amanda credits the FOC staff: “One of my greatest accomplishments is cultivating this team.”
For Art’s Sake
Disc jockey, horse riding instructor, graphic designer, small business owner—you name it, Abby Hayhurst has done it. But 15 years ago she was offered a job that, she says, scared her: executive director of the Parkersburg Art Center.
She was worried the job would involve lots of black suits with shoulderpads. So she made some rules. Everyone had to wear jeans, and no Vivaldi on the stereo system.
It wasn’t just the dress code and soundtrack that Hayhurst changed. She spearheaded a capital campaign that paid off all the center’s long-term debt and funded major repairs on its 80-year-old building. She has also found new ways to generate income, including a custom framery, a gift shop, weekly bingo games, and facility rentals for weddings and other events.
But the core mission is still the arts. Under Hayhurst’s direction, the center now offers weekend and summer art classes for kids, runs a nationally recognized arts-focused preschool program, and puts on 16 exhibits a year, mostly focused on regional artists.
Princeton native Melissa McKinney wanted to sing for a living. And for a long time, she did. But while living in North Carolina, she got a job as a music teacher and found she liked teaching music just as much as performing it.
In 2008, she moved back home to open Stages Music School. The school offers traditional private lessons but also takes a School of Rock approach, placing students in bands where they can apply what they learn in the classroom. Now in its tenth year, Stages boasts 175 students and nine instructors.
The school is also home to the One Voice Project, a program McKinney launched four years ago for her most advanced students. They learn how to build a music career and also perform concerts with professional-grade sound and lights at elementary, middle, and high schools, using popular music to talk to their fellow students about issues like bullying, depression, and self esteem.
Doctor Without Borders
Christine Jones came to West Virginia from her native Ohio for a public broadcasting job in Beckley, then moved to Morgantown while her husband finished his Ph.D. That’s when Jones made a big change. She decided to go to medical school at Marshall University.
She wanted to work with underserved rural populations, both in West Virginia and abroad. After completing her residency, she joined a clinic in Clay County while also serving on medical missions in India, Ecuador, Honduras, and Haiti.
Her time in Haiti inspired another dramatic life change. Although she and her husband had no children, in 2005 they decided to adopt two teenagers, a brother and sister who’d grown up in an orphanage there. Their daughter is now a student at West Virginia State University and their son is a soccer-obsessed high schooler.
Jones still works at the Clay County clinic, an hour’s commute from her Charleston home. Her patients have become an extended family—they offer her a bed when the roads are too icy and bring her home-canned pickles. “You stay because of the people,” she says.
Transforming Higher Ed
After more than a decade in academic and administrative leadership at American Public University System, Karan Powell became president in 2016 of the nation’s second-largest online university. APUS, headquartered in Charles Town, has nearly 90,000 students and is the largest provider to military-affiliated students. It offers more than 200 certificate and degree programs—including, starting in 2018, PhDs.
Powell’s career in leadership development, organizational improvement, and academia has prepared her to champion a model of higher education that anticipates the needs of the economy. The online platform makes college attainable now for adults whose professional and personal lives don’t allow for an on-campus experience, she says. She advocates for attention to the total college experience by any institution that offers degrees online—not only courses but registration, advising, student organizations, and other needs.
Though Powell grew up in Chicago, her mother was born and raised West Virginia. “It’s fun to be part of this great state knowing it has a place of meaning in the life of my family,” she says.
Going into her ninth-grade year at Huntington High School, Malak Khader decided to declare her Muslim faith to the world and cover her hair. The consequences were immediate. People began staring. A classmate tried to yank off her scarf because he “didn’t like what it stood for.” “That’s when I realized, people have a very negative opinion of my faith because they haven’t experienced it firsthand.”
Khader began volunteering around Huntington—at church soup kitchens, the Special Olympics, Relay for Life events—anywhere she could interact with people and show that Muslims are just like everyone else. She also began working within her faith community, founding a Girl Scout troop at her mosque. Neighborhood kids started joining, too, and now the troop is hodgepodge of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Khader, now 25, will soon leave her hometown for a Ph.D. program in Texas. But we haven’t seen the last of her. “I’ll be back. This is my home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Backpacks and Brown Bags
In 2010, Necia Freeman put out a call on Facebook for donations to feed needy Huntington elementary school students over the weekends. In 2011, with members of her church and the community supporting that Backpacks program, she started a Brown Bag food program to offer a hand to prostitutes in Huntington. Today the Backpacks and Brown Bags Ministry provides weekend meals to 60 to 70 students. The organization has also formed relationships with more than 250 women making their lives on the streets. “We’ve seen some girls accept Christ as their savior, graduate from college, get married, have babies, get professional jobs—it’s been really cool to be able to be a part of that.”
But don’t think this is Freeman’s day job. She’s been a full-time Realtor and single mother through it all. Along with more than 10 dedicated volunteers, both of Freeman’s daughters, now grown, are an important part of the program.
A Family Tradition of Service
In her day job, Kelly Palmer is chief tax deputy for the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office. It’s a position she was appointed to in 2009 and one her mother held decades ago. Palmer has a history in community development, having worked at Mainstreet Morgantown and the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau in the early 2000s. Chief tax deputy satisfies a different part of her personality: “I’m a numbers geek,” she says.
But Palmer also maintains an impressive volunteer schedule. She serves on the West Virginia Tourism Commission. She chairs the Monongalia County Democratic Executive Committee, a longtime family commitment. She got involved more than a decade ago with the Miss West Virginia Scholarship Organization and fulfills a leadership role there. Most important to her, she’s been an active member of Quota International of Morgantown for much of her life, working alongside her mother, aunts, and sister-in-law to bringing awareness and advocacy to the hearing- and speech-impaired. “It’s just something we’ve always done as a family.”
Following a Tradition of Service
Francine Jones is proud to be from Matewan, a place where her family has long worked to help those in need. She joined Matewan’s city council in June 2013, the first black woman elected to the office. Her platform was trifold: rebuild the town’s amphitheater, save the historic jail, and restore the town’s sense of community. She worked to achieve these goals by diligently supporting Matewan’s “Turn This Town Around” campaign and serving on the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum board.
Although she did not win re-election in June 2017, Jones continues to work on her platform. She hopes to one day assist teenage mothers and those with drug addiction by offering clothing, support, and anything else they may need. “I want people to remember that I really do believe in people working together,” she says.
After graduating from West Virginia University and serving as director of marketing for the Wheeling Nailers hockey team, Wheeling native Susie Nelson became the executive director for the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley. The foundation has expanded its outreach under her leadership, creating the Women’s Giving Circle, a group of women who pool their money and offer grants meant to empower other women and girls. Together, they raised more than $200,000 in the past seven years.
Nelson also serves as chairwoman of Philanthropy West Virginia’s board and is part of the Rotary Club in Wheeling. She’s glad to help others through her work. “Since I have lived here my whole life, the area is important to me and I’m hoping my kids will stick around when they’re old enough to make that decision,” she says.
The Human Resources Guru
As she approached her 50th birthday, Bernie Deem was a senior vice president of human resources at One Valley Bank, where she had worked for 18 years. She had climbed as high as possible on the career ladder. So she quit, made a list of the 20 things she’d do if she had time and money, and set about doing them.
In the meantime, BB&T purchased One Valley Bank, which led several of Deem’s former colleagues to join other banks or start their own. “Those guys called me and said, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I need HR help.”
She launched her company Deem HR in 2000 and began hosting seminars, writing employee handbooks, and advising clients on a host of human resources needs. Today she continues that work at Align HR, a company she formed with co-principal Zach Abraham in 2013.
Looking for a Cure
Growing up in Beckley, Dr. Ayne Amjad’s hematologist-oncologist father made one thing clear: Practicing medicine isn’t enough. “If you really want to help the community, you still have to volunteer,” she says. “I don’t consider being a physician donating my time.”
Amjad was a candy striper through high school, then volunteered at a nursing home in college. After completing her medical school residency in Pittsburgh, Amjad came home to set up an internal medicine practice. She noticed her hometown was a different place than when she’d left. Heroin was everywhere. Cases of hepatitis C and HIV were on the rise as a result of addicts sharing needles.
She read about needle exchanges in Charleston and Huntington and suggested Beckley local health officials start one, too, but they weren’t interested. So, true to her raising, Amjad started a needle exchange on her own—unpaid and off the clock.
Amjad bought thousands of needles out of her own pocket. A local pharmacy agreed to serve as the exchange site. In just three months, Amjad’s fledgling program distributed nearly 1,000 needles. “It’s scary, because you wonder what they were doing before.”
The project hasn’t been without difficulties. After starting in August 2016, the exchange was so overloaded with demand after just a few months that Amjad had to shut it down. She restarted it in March, but closed again after two months when the pharmacy complained of addicts shooting up in the parking lot.
Now, Amjad is trying to find a way to get the exchange running again. But she’s also thinking of bigger ways to tackle the problems her community faces. In July of this year, she announced she would run for state’s third district U.S. House of Representatives seat.
“It’s Always About Relationships”
Parkersburg native Jill Parsons majored in hospital administration and finance at Marshall University, then got her MBA at the University of South Carolina. Pursuing a career in hospital marketing, Parsons became the director of marketing at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Parkersburg and was eventually promoted to vice president. Then, when the president and CEO position opened up at the Parkersburg Chamber of Commerce, Parsons decided to apply. Networking proved to be important— she knew every person in the interview room, and each one continues to play a role in her position today. “It’s always about relationships; connecting and being accessible with our members to find out what their needs are,” she says.
Parsons is also the president of the local Rotary Club, where she has been a member for 10 years. She is active in the local Marshall University alumni group and enjoys playing pickleball, a game similar to tennis and wiffle ball.
A Vocation in Advocacy
It was the bagpipes that called her away. Rebecca McPhail hails from eastern Kanawha County and graduated from the West Virginia Institute of Technology, but she moved to Cleveland to play drums in a competitive bagpipe band. She also worked at the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, where she oversaw the group’s fundraising efforts.
McPhail moved back to West Virginia after starting a family and became president of Vision Shared, a community and economic development organization. Now she’s president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, focusing on policy and advocacy.
She also volunteers with March of Dimes, where she helps organize the Charleston March for Babies, and serves on the Early Childhood Advisory Council of West Virginia, a group that strives to improve the education and livelihoods of young children in the state.
McPhail can often be found outdoors, spending time with her two sons and her partner, Dave. This past summer, they completed their first triathlon as a family.
Ordinary but Extraordinary
Joan Browning’s scholarship at her small Georgia college disappeared after she started attending a nearby black church—but that’s when she found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and joined the Civil Rights Movement. “It made all the difference in my life.”
She came to West Virginia to work with an anti-poverty program and later opened a successful bookkeeping agency. She wanted to become a writer, however, so she squirreled away a nest egg, closed her business, and began writing for magazines and newspapers full-time.
In the 1990s, she contributed to the book Deep in our Hearts: 9 White Women in the Freedom Movement. She’s since become a popular speaker at schools, where she stresses that the Civil Rights Movement was one of ordinary people. “And yet we took down those nasty signs,” she says of placards all across the South that relegated black Americans to separate drinking fountains, seating areas, and all other public functions. “We made sure people had the right to vote.”
New Jersey native Jessica Waldo followed her love of skiing to West Virginia, where she studied hospitality management at Davis and Elkins College and spent her weekends at Snowshoe Ski Resort. After graduating, she moved to Tucker County to be near friends and quickly fell in love with the area. “People from West Virginia are very proud and, even though I was not born and raised here, this is my home. I’m from here now,” she says.
Waldo now serves as executive director of the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau and is a member of the Tucker Community Corporation, the Alpine Festival, and the Tucker County Cultural District Authority. She also supports local nonprofits as well as the Potomac Highlands Farm and Food Initiative.
And she’s about to take on one more title to her resume: mom. Waldo and her husband, Tyler, are expecting their first child in October 2017.
Joanna Tabit had no clear plans for the future when she headed off to Marshall University. Then, the summer before her senior year, she interned with then–Circuit Judge Margaret Workman. “She was the reason I went to law school,” the Belle native says.
After law school, she clerked for West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh and worked for the state Attorney General’s office before joining Steptoe & Johnson as a litigator. She stayed for 22 years but was always keeping her eye open for bench openings. Then, in 2014, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin appointed her as Kanawha circuit judge. She was elected to the seat in 2016.
Now, in addition to her regular docket, she’s a member of the state Supreme Court’s Juvenile Justice Commission, which ensures young people are treated fairly in the court system. She also hopes to mentor future lawyers the way Workman mentored her. “I think that’s so critical to young people’s development.”
Jefferson County saw a record-breaking number of tourists in 2016—20 percent more than the year before. This is thanks in part to the leadership of Annette Gavin, CEO of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Gavin—who has been involved in the tourism industry for 23 years, having worked at Hilltop House Hotel and the Inn at Charles Town—is a masterful marketer and consensus builder. In 2016, she helped to successfully lobby state lawmakers for the passage of the so-called “brunch bill,” which relaxed regulations on Sunday alcohol sales.
“Annette is the face of tourism in Jefferson County,” says Christian Asam, president of the Jefferson County CVB board. “She shares our story passionately with visitors, business leaders, and legislators alike. Most amazingly, Annette’s drive for the success of tourism is equaled by her compassion for the people of our community.
“She truly is a wonder woman, who is making a gigantic impact not only here in the panhandle but statewide.”
After earning a teaching degree by the time she was 19, Jada Hunter kickstarted the state Human Rights Commission case that forced Mingo County to integrate its teaching staffs in the mid-1960s. She ended up teaching in Mineral County, however, where after two years she was hired as supervisor of the county vocational center’s business department. With the encouragement of her principal, she became the first black contestant and winner of the Miss Eastern West Virginia beauty pageant.
Hunter moved back to her native Mingo County after a few years in Connecticut. She taught at Lenore High School before becoming the county’s first female high school principal, at Matewan High. She was then principal at Birch High for 14 years, retiring in 2003.
Hunter remains active in her community: tutoring at a youth center in Williamson, serving on Southern Community and Technical College’s Board of Governors, and presiding over Action in Mingo, a group that organizes the county’s King Coal Festival and the Great White Way holiday event, among other happenings.
Teaching by Example
If anyone understands the transformative power of education, it’s Sherri Nash.
She tried college as a teenager but dropped out. “I just didn’t have the confidence.” Then, in her early 30s, she gave it another try. She worked her way through school, graduated in 1991, got a job with a career center, and quickly found herself in the center’s administration.
In 2007—by which time she’d earned both master’s and doctorate degrees, raised a son, and survived a bout with breast cancer—Nash left the career center and went to work for a national accreditation agency. But she wanted to do something more for students in her home state.
She joined the West Virginia Department of Education in 2011 as the executive director of career technical education. Now she’s working to reshape technical schools in West Virginia, and she’s writing a book in hopes other women will be inspired by her story. “It was the education that gave me my confidence, and it was the career success that gave me purpose.”
Problem-Solving for Prosperity
When Mindy Walls saw in the early 2000s that many of her design students at West Virginia University wanted to start businesses, she created an entrepreneurship minor in the business college. Later, as director of the Entrepreneurship Center, she took the fledgling WVU-only annual student business plan competition to colleges statewide.
Now, as WVU assistant vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation, she’s infusing a pyramidal approach to innovation throughout the university. “We introduce as many students as possible to the innovator mindset,” she says—the base of the pyramid. “At the second level, we’re teaching students to see problems as opportunities rather than obstacles and to solve them creatively—a skill that’s important for everyone. And that may or may not lead to the top level, which is starting a venture: a business, a social enterprise, a nonprofit.”
Seeing entrepreneurship as one possible outcome of problem-solving, it’s easy to understand Walls’ view that the number of business starts isn’t necessarily the best way to assess entrepreneurship education. Even so, the university’s growing innovation ecosystem is bearing fruit in start-ups. “We recognize how important innovation is for the prosperity of West Virginia,” she says, “and what a key driver WVU needs to be in that.”
A Helping Hand
Ever since she was a little girl, Jen Waggener wanted to help those in need. The South Charleston native married her husband at the age of 19 and soon started having children, then moved out of state to pursue a marketing career. But sixteen years later, the Mountain State called her back home.
True to her childhood desires, she began working at the Alzheimer’s Association, where she noticed an inadequate system of support for seniors in the Charleston area. So Waggener left her job to bring Faith In Action—a volunteer-based program that helps senior citizens with basic needs like getting groceries and driving to appointments—to the Kanawha Valley. “The people on your street need a helping hand every once in a while, and Faith In Action tries to recreate that good neighbor feeling,” she says.
Brittany Javins was spreading herself too thin. She was teaching middle school English and private ballet lessons, running an after-school dance program, and performing with local dance companies. “I started to think, was there something that could tie it all together?” She stumbled on an arts administration master’s program in Florida. “It never occurred to me that working on the business side of the arts was something I could do or was needed.”
When it came time for her internship, she came home to work with FestivAll, Charleston’s popular two-week summer arts festival. Soon FestivAll became the focus of every class project and case study Javins completed. After graduation, she got a job with the festival and, in 2015, she became co-director.
Javins, who took over as executive director in 2016, hopes to continue expanding FestivAll by getting more people involved and bringing in fresh, new events. “It’s not just business. I’m excited now to start to take risks, artistically.”
Bank On It
Lifelong Weirton resident Catherine Ferrari got a job with the Hancock County Savings Bank after high school. She began as a teller before being promoted to teller supervisor, then branch manager. The promotions continued. She became a vice president, then senior vice president, then executive vice president. Now, she’s president of the bank.
Working her way through the ranks gave her an expertise few other bank presidents possess. “You don’t have to be the expert, but you have to ask the right questions,” she says.
Ferrari says community banks like hers are important because they understand and adapt to needs of the people they serve. She still gets notes from people she helped 30 years ago, and still loves being able to help families rebuild their credit or purchase their own homes. “I work for a company that has the same values as I do. I like to come to work. That says something.”
Givin’ Hell to High Water
Susan Jack was leaving West Virginia—just five more days of work and she and her family were moving to Dayton, Ohio. Then the floods came.
In late June 2016, floodwaters ripped through Southern West Virginia, including Jack’s hometown of Clendenin. Her plans instantly changed. Jack threw herself into full-time relief work. A natural leader with lots of contacts in the community, she took charge and began coordinating the swarms of volunteers who poured into town. “I became a dispatcher-slash-project manager-slash-coordinator.”
She worked as a volunteer for 10 months, living off her savings, before becoming executive director of the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee in March 2017. It’s exhausting, nearly round-the-clock work— some families and businesses haven’t even started rebuilding. But Jack is as energized as ever. “Bottom line, I just felt it was the right thing to do. I would have felt like I was bailing if I had left.”
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Elise Bowling watched friends sign up for the military and get shipped off to Afghanistan and Iraq. She wanted to find a way to support them, so she began writing letters—first to her friends, and then to friends of friends who weren’t getting much mail.
Bowling then began volunteering with troop support organizations, putting together care packages for service members from all over the country. She wondered if there was an organization that catered especially to Southern West Virginia troops, but couldn’t find any. “Somebody told me long ago, if you see something that needs to be done, you’re probably the one who needs to do it.”
She launched Drive for the Deployed in 2015 with her church, Immanuel Lutheran in Bluefield. Thanks to generous donations and a dedicated squad of volunteers, the group expects to send 3,000 care packages this year. “I am so pleased where it is right now. But I’d love to see it become a huge organization like the big ones that crank out 10,000 mailings a year.”
Changing the Face of Healthcare
When a poll of high school students shows they don’t get flu shots because they believe doctors just give the shots to make money, that’s valuable information from a public health perspective.
But say the poll was conducted by disadvantaged high school students. Say those students get to explain to their classmates that doctors make money from sickness, not from prevention, and tell them where to get free flu shots. And say more of their classmates decide to get shots—helping them stay in school and saving their families the cost of doctors’ visits. Now something transformational is happening: Those student researchers start to see themselves in health care careers. They also become advocates for public health in their own communities. This is just one of many research projects conducted by students enrolled in Ann Chester’s Health Sciences & Technology Academy (HSTA), based at West Virginia University.
Working with WVU’s Health Careers Opportunity Program in the late 1980s, Chester saw that the students HCOP aimed to support—college students from underprivileged backgrounds in West Virginia—weren’t applying. “They’d decided long ago, ‘There’s not anybody there that looks like me or sounds like me. Why would I go there?’” she says. She started HSTA in 1994 to encourage students at an earlier age.
Today, 80 volunteer HSTA mentors work with hundreds of high school students across the state. Participants are diverse, with a higher proportion of young women, first-generation college-goers, financially disadvantaged students, and students of color than the state’s health care professions have had in the past. More than 2,400 students have completed the program, and more than 90 percent of them earn college degrees—and then, 85 percent stay in West Virginia to work.
Chester sees the difference today she set out to make in the HCOP program. “Now our applications are full of HSTA students trying to get into medical, dental, and pharmacy programs. It’s just so much fun.”
Anchor, Advocate, Actress
Gretchen joined WBOY in Clarksburg as an anchor in 2013 where her fresh smile and lively reporting on economic development, health, and education have made her a favorite with viewers.
As a volunteer with Bridgeport Junior Woman’s Club, Ross was named 2017 Junior of the Year for her work with the Harrison County Backpack Program. Ross is often seen on-stage, most recently playing roles in M.T. Pockets Theatre of Morgantown’s spring 2017 production of Steel Magnolias and in Vintage Theatre Company of Clarksburg’s summer 2017 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Healing Through Hope
Lisa Melcher lost her daughter and son-in-law to overdoses. Tara Mason’s ex-boyfriend went to jail over drug-related charges. Kristie Plotner’s daughter and Tina Stride’s son both struggle with opioid addictions.
The women met one another in a support group for families affected by addiction. As they worked through their pain, they hit on an idea. “We’ve got to be the new dealers,” Melcher said. “The dealers of hope.” The Hope Dealer Project was born.
Those needing help reach out via the group’s toll-free number, Facebook page, or word of mouth. Then the Hope Dealers spring into action to find the treatment program best suited to each client’s addiction and personal needs. Once they’ve located an open spot, one of the women transports the client in her personal vehicle, often driving through the night.
The Martinsburg-based group became an official nonprofit in 2016 and still mostly operates as a four-woman operation. It’s heartbreaking work, but they’re as committed as ever. “We’re not doing this for praise. We’re doing this to get the addicts into recovery,” Stride says.
In July 2017, Buffalo swore in a town council completely comprised of women—the first town in West Virginia history to do so. The five-member council includes two incumbent members, Barbara Reed and Leah Higginbotham, as well as three newcomers, Jenny Buck-Leighton, Billy Whittington, and Alisa Scott. Council members say they are focused on attracting new businesses and making their community a better place to live.
In her senior year of college, Nellie Rose Davis realized she’d lost her joy. The child of two textile artists, Davis spent her youth behind a sewing machine but had since stepped away from art. So she went to Japan to study traditional silk art, then moved to Virginia to work in her mother’s studio.
Davis was selling her Shibori scarves at a fair in Charleston when a woman suggested she sign up for one of the Tamarack Foundation’s artisan support programs. Davis applied, got accepted, and moved home to Elkins to set up shop. She later relocated to the Lamplight Gallery in Thomas, adding a retail side to her business.
Nellie Rose Textiles has now expanded to include clothing made from hand-painted raw silk. “It’s been a dream of mine to dress bodies,” Davis says. “It’s really important to me that women feel good. Because when they feel good, they do really amazing, powerful things.”
A Woman of Vision
Fairmont native Judie Charlton went into ophthalmology because of the big difference improved vision makes in a person’s life. She also liked the idea of taking care of her patients in both the clinic and the operating room. She specialized in glaucoma to address unmet needs across West Virginia, and she rose to chair WVU’s Department of Ophthalmology and lead the WVU Eye Institute.
In 2011, Charlton was appointed Chief Medical Officer for WVU Healthcare. She makes sure all departments have the capacity to meet patient needs in a reasonable time frame. “What’s most meaningful for me are seeing the sudden and dramatic positive impact we’re having on health disparities in West Virginia,” she says, “and seeing the graduates of our educational program become tomorrow’s health care providers.” She still gets to do a little ophthalmology—a group of donors recognized the value of her monthly glaucoma outreach clinic in Gilbert, West Virginia by creating the endowed chair she now holds: the Judie F. Charlton Chair for Glaucoma Outreach.
Going Out, Helping Out
Girls Night Out is a celebration of the power of women. In 1998, a group of women came together under the leadership of Sandy Graff and Elsie Carter to create Girls Night Out—“a party with a purpose”—to raise money to help the Charleston-based YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program.
Nineteen years later, GNO has raised more than $1 million for YWCA Resolve. The event has become a much-anticipated summer event, attracting more than 2,000 women each year, and was named a Southeast Tourism Society “Top 20 Event” for August 2017.
And it still abides by its original mission, expressed in the tagline: “Women helping women with power, passion, and purpose by raising funds and awareness to eliminate domestic violence.”
The Principled Architect
Phoebe Randolph is an architect by profession, but she is leaving her mark on more than just buildings. As a principal at Edward Tucker Architects in Huntington, she was part of the team that worked on Huntington’s award-winning efforts in the America’s Best Communities competition. In 2006, she helped found Create Huntington, and she served as the organization’s first board president. “We wanted to combat toxic and defeatist attitudes and challenge everyone to get involved in the community and do something instead of criticize and complain,” she says.
She also founded the Livable Communities Committee for West Virginia’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which provides free urban planning advice to cities in the state. And, in addition to serving on several boards including the Huntington Museum of Art and United Way of the River Cities, in 2016 she became the first female president of AIA West Virginia.
In the NICU of Time
When Alyson Hehr was born, her lungs didn’t work like they should, so she spent nearly a week in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. She grew up hearing that story, eventually realizing families were living their own version every day. So Hehr, her parents, and her brother began putting together care packages for families with children in Ruby Memorial’s NICU.
Seven years later, what started as a small service project is now a full-fledged nonprofit organization: Alyson’s Angels. The Hehrs have delivered nearly 1,000 care packages to the hospital. Each one is filled with snacks, gas cards, and basic hygiene products like toothpaste, shampoo, and soap. Many of the items are donated by the public, but the Wheeling family also holds annual fundraisers to purchase the rest—usually raising a few thousand dollars each time. “The most rewarding part is seeing how involved the community gets,” Hehr says.
In March of this year, Governor Jim Justice appointed Loita Butcher as acting commissioner of the state Division of Corrections—making her the first woman to hold that post.
It’s a job she worked hard to earn. After high school, Butcher went to work at a small law firm before joining the Clay County Prosecutor’s Office. She then went to work for the state Attorney General’s Office, serving in the Division of Corrections, which turned into a job with the division proper. She was hired as executive assistant to the then-commissioner, worked her way up to the commissioner’s chief of staff and then assistant commissioner before taking her current position.
She hopes her success serves as inspiration. “Hopefully it sets the tone for career advancement of other females in the state,” she says. “I would love to see more females named in these higher-level roles.”
Promoting Her Community
When tragedy strikes, leaders step up. And when Greenbrier County was devastated by the floods of June 2016, Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Kara Dense did just that. Horrific images of houses floating down the river and of The Greenbrier’s premier golf course under water made national news, scaring tourists away. “After the initial shock, we realized that it was going to have a significant impact on our economy—particularly tourism, which is the largest employer in the county,” Dense says.
She negotiated an agreement with county commissioners to provide funds to launch an aggressive media campaign, considered by many to have been instrumental in drawing tourists back. Dense has also held a leadership role for the past eight years in the West Virginia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, was recently appointed to the West Virginia Tourism Commission, and serves on the boards of the Lewisburg Rotary Club and the Greenbrier Valley Theatre.
When Dr. Jillean Justice graduated from Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2012, she had no idea that, in addition to working as a physician, she would soon become the first female and youngest-ever president of West Virginia’s crown jewel, The Greenbrier. But that’s exactly what happened when her father, Jim Justice, was elected governor in 2016 and had to step away from his family businesses.
Justice wears many hats in her new position. When she’s not seeing patients at Greenbrier Care—many of whom are employees and their families—she’s managing food and beverage budgets, dealing with engineering problems, overseeing entertainment and recreation, and evaluating retail numbers. “For me, it’s all about the employees,” Justice says. “We are a tight community. The employees have taught me more about the hotel than our seasoned managers. I’m constantly learning, but I have a lot of people around me who I depend on.”
The responsibility of running the state’s premier resort—and managing its 2,000-member staff—is not lost on Justice. “The Greenbrier needs to be successful for the employees, their children, and our state. I take that responsibility very seriously. You want to do well for everyone who works here.”
84 Agency is a media production company and public relations firm created by Lewisburg native Jen Susman and Carling McManus of Boston, Massachusetts. Susman attended Marshall University and the University of Toledo, where she majored in art. She then went to graduate school at the San Francisco ArtInstitute, where she met McManus, who was pursuing a career in media and film after attending graphic design school. The two started combining their talents on projects and, in 2012, Susman and McManus moved to Charleston and opened their agency.
The company specializes in using videos and photography tell its customers’ stories. Underlying their work is a commitment to making their adoptive hometown a better place. “Our interest is in improving our community and working with nonprofits through media production and art,” says McManus. The couple married in summer 2016 and enjoy spending time outdoors in the state’s natural playground.
Detection on Wheels
Jo Statler’s mother, Bonnie Wells Wilson, died of breast cancer in 1992, partially because she lived in a rural community with no access to screening mammography. That’s why Jo and her husband Ben made a donation to the WVU Cancer Institute to help launch Bonnie’s Bus, a mobile mammography unit that travels across West Virginia to make sure all women have access to life-saving cancer screenings.
No one age 40 or over is ever turned away. The bus provides screenings for women with private insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare, along with uninsured women through the West Virginia Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program.
Since hitting the road in 2009, Bonnie’s Bus has provided more than 13,000 mammograms all over West Virginia, detecting dozens of cases of breast cancer that might not have been diagnosed until it was too late.
She Speaks for the Birds
Katie Fallon’s first word—“bird”—told of things to come. Fallon worked in a pet shop as an undergraduate at Penn State in the 1990s, where she hand-raised parrot chicks. As a graduate student in creative writing at West Virginia University in the early 2000s, she started writing about vultures, without a clear goal at the time. Instead, she wrote 2011’s Cerulean Blues about the decline of the cerulean warbler, a finalist for the prestigious Reed Environmental Writing Award. Fallon is now an English instructor at WVU. Her fascination with birds has become a labor of love: she, her veterinarian husband, and a couple of friends started the nonprofit Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in 2012 to care for injured birds, conduct educational programs, and do research. Her earlier writings became Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird; that book and her first children’s book, Look, See the Bird!, were released in 2017.
Frances Benjamin Johnston was born in Grafton just one year after West Virginia became a state. As a young woman, she studied drawing and painting at the Académie Julian in Paris, France, before returning to the States and setting up her own photography studio in Washington, D.C. in 1894.
Johnston became one of the first female press photographers in the country, training her lens on some of the most important events and people of her day. Her subjects included Susan B. Anthony, President William McKinley, Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute, the White House during Spanish-American War, and, after gaining special permission from Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S.S. Olympia following the Battle of Manila Bay.
Her photography career spanned 60 years, during which time she also documented contemporary architecture and conducted a survey of historic buildings across the South. She died in 1952 at the age of 88.
Walker Says, “Run!”
When Beth Walker took the bench with the state Supreme Court of Appeals earlier this year, West Virginia became one of only 11 states with more women than men on their high courts. It’s fitting that Walker would be part of that history, since the Ohio native has dedicated her entire legal career to the Mountain State and its people, first at Bowles Rice in Charleston and then with West Virginia University Hospital System in Morgantown.
Now she’s doing her most important work yet. It’s a big adjustment, she says, but she’s enjoying the challenge. “I work with some really incredible people. It really is a collegial environment, even though we disagree on things.”
She hopes her election will encourage other women to seek public office. “I would encourage anyone who thinks they can make a difference to try.”