The "West Virginia Uncovered" project was created to cultivate online innovation and storytelling among the Mountain State's community newspapers.
Since 2008, students from the WVU P.I. Reed School of Journalism have crisscrossed the back roads and small towns of West Virginia, working with about a dozen weekly newspapers and looking for untold stories. In addition, the participating newspapers receive training in online and multimedia journalism at WVU. The West Virginia Uncovered project is supported by grants from the McCormick Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
Cass film honors family matriarch
By Diane Jeanty and Tyler Hawn
West Virginia Uncovered
Some knew her as the "Queen of Cass," Miss Kane or simply, Dess. But, Odessa Kane was also J.T. Arbogast’s grandmother and the primary inspiration for his movie, "Angel’s Perch," scheduled to debut sometime in 2013. The movie—which is now in post-production—was filmed in Cass throughout September, and tells the story of a young man grappling with his grandmother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Arbogast wrote the screenplay to honor his grandmother and the town she called home.
Arbogast, who is originally from Pennsylvania, spent summers visiting his "Nana" in the small town of Cass when he was growing up. Arbogast recalls that she always told the story about him and his cousin, John Michael, sneaking out of the upstairs bedroom window of her house to go roam the town. As they tried to sneak back into the house, their Nana was waiting for them upstairs.
"She would probably tell it six different times, but make it unique each time," says Kimberly Dilts, Arbogast’s wife and a producer of the film.
The town, which bustles to the whistles of locomotives throughout the day, was as much an inspiration to Arbogast as his grandmother. Built on the lumber industry, the town had almost 3,000 people until the mills shut down in the 1960s. Kane’s husband, Jack, was one of a number of businessmen in the town who helped persuade the state to turn the lumber railroad into the scenic tourist attraction it is today, in order to save the town. Jack died in the 1980s, but Kane lived in the town until her death in 2008.
Kane’s friends and family remember her as an important person in the town and were impressed by the way she carried herself.
"She was a very classy lady. She was never late for that weekly hair appointment every Thursday," said Judy Kane, Dess Kane’s daughter-in-law.
"She was the matriarch of Cass," Arbogast said." It didn’t matter who it was, everyone always called her Ms. Kane. She was just a light. I don’t know how else to say it. She was just a light in the world. And certainly for the people around here, everybody thought very highly of her."
Arbogast went to college to pursue theater, earning a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in 1998. He eventually earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Texas in 2004. He has starred in television shows like NBC’s "30 Rock" and movies like "When in Rome."
Kimberly Dilts, Arbogast’s wife and producer for the film, is also an actress, and has been featured in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and the CW’s "90210."
In 2004, Odessa Kane was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease affects more than four million people each year, according to the National Institute of Aging.
"They call it the long goodbye, because you can spend many years watching someone you love disappear," said Arbogast.
His grandmother’s four-year struggle with dementia is what inspired Arbogast to write the script for "Angel’s Perch."
"We could show her a photograph to bring her back. Watching her forget was the hardest," said Arbogast.
Once his "Nana" passed away in 2008, Arbogast spent many days and nights trying to figure out a way to honor her.
He began working on the script for "Angel’s Perch" in 2009, a year after his grandmother’s passing. He says his grandmother was very proud of the town and talked about it to everyone. He wanted to find a way to carry on that legacy using his talents and skill set.
While he worked on the script, he mostly kept it to himself. Then, when it was finished, he allowed his wife to read it.
"I read it, and it was good," Dilts said. "Then I was like ‘Damn it. Now we have to produce it.’"
The production of the film has been something Arbogast calls a guessing game—waiting to get investors, A-list talent, and money.
"We got to a point when we were all like ‘we could wait forever for this, and we don’t want to.’ So Kim and I sat down with our director Charles Haines. We were like, ‘We think we just want to just make this thing. Like, we’ve got this much money. Let’s make it. Let’s figure it out.’" Arbogast said.
Once Haines signed on, the decision was made, and the support came from a variety of places. In addition to a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, partnerships with Snowshoe Mountain Resort, The Green Bank Observatory, and the West Virginia Alzheimer’s Association provided fiscal support for the production, which cost about $130,000.
The film, which is based on Arbogast’s experience, is not an exact representation of events. In it, an architect from Pittsburgh, named Jack, played by Arbogast himself, returns to West Virginia after his grandmother, Polly, is found wandering outside of her home. What was intended to be a short trip, becomes more complicated when Jack struggles to move his grandmother into an assisted living facility. Distinct memories begin to slip from Polly, and soon, Jack’s carefully constructed life begins to fall down around him.
Joyce Van Patten, who plays the character, Polly, in the film, was "the one," producers say. Van Patten has starred in major productions such as the classic soap opera "As the World Turns," and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She has also made guest appearances in shows like Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, and the Twilight Zone.
"We looked for somebody who had warmth, and grace," Arbogast said. "Joyce is extremely approachable. The minute we got her on set, we knew we had the one."
There are moments in the film that very closely resemble the real story. At a pivotal moment in the movie, characters deal with the closing of the old schoolhouse in Cass. When the old school house shut down in reality, students had to be bussed much further out in the county to get to school.
Though it could have been set in many small towns, most of "Angel’s Perch" was set and filmed in Cass. Parts of the movie were even filmed in Kane’s former home in Cass.
"It’s my emotional home," said Arbogast. "I couldn’t imagine setting it any place else."
The production cast held local auditions for extras in Marlinton last year. Some of the extras were Kane’s friends, who knew her well.
Filming began on September 4, the anniversary of Kane’s death. Throughout the filming, family members like Judy and Janet Kane—both aunts of Arbogast—came out to watch and participate. The presence of people who knew Kane and were familiar with the relationships in the story added another dimension to the project.
"We’ve left crying because it’s been that touching," Judy Kane said.
As of now, producers hope to finish production next summer in time for the Sundance Film Festival independent film showcase held each year in Park City, Utah. The movie is set to debut sometime in 2013.
C. J. Richardson Hardware: Four generations of service
This January, West Virginia Uncovered journalism students spent a winter immersion weekend in Pocahontas County, developing five multimedia stories. This is the fifth and final one of these stories, which have been published in The Pocahontas Times in recent weeks.
West Virginia Uncovered
Standing three stories tall, the light blue building trimmed in white with "C. J. Richardson" across the front is a landmark in Marlinton. Built in 1901, this hardware store supplied tools, equipment and other necessities for locals and those traveling on the railroad next-door.
Now in its fourth-generation of ownership, the building continues to sell much of the same merchandise it sold in the early the 1900s, like nails, pipe and bolts, but other items such as flat-screen TVs, furniture, and china have been added over the years.
Terry Richardson, 57, is the great-grandson of C. J. Richardson and continues to carry on the store's legacy. With the nearest Walmart 40 miles away across the county line, Richardson makes an effort to carry a little bit of everything the small town needs. The small staff, many of whom have been at the store for years, greets many customers by name and makes every effort they can to help members of the community.
While Richardson isn't ready to retire any time soon, he is teaching the trade of the business to his daughter, Annie. But the decision to take over the family business and create a fifth-generation of ownership is up to his children, Terry said. Regardless of who takes over the business next, Richardson believes the store's service to the community will remain strong.
Farming in the family
This January, West Virginia Uncovered journalism students spent a winter immersion weekend in Pocahontas County, developing five multimedia stories. This is the fourth of these stories, which are being published in The Pocahontas Times in subsequent weeks. Next week: C.J. Richardson Hardware.
Sara Wise and Preston Hartman
West Virginia Uncovered
The McNeel family farm in Hillsboro has been home to four generations of McNeels since 1908.
Jacob Moffett McNeel, the second caretaker of the farm, was born there in 1928 and has lived the life of a farmer ever since. In 1949, he married his high school sweetheart Elma and, together, the two started their own family on the farm.
Over the years, Moffett managed a total of 880 acres, harvesting corn and tending cattle and hogs, even through the loss of his dominant hand in an accident with a corn picker in 1961. He and his wife played an active role in the local state and farming communities for most of their lives. Four years ago, just short of their 60th anniversary, Elma passed away.
These days, at 86 years old, McNeel is still tending to the land and livestock with the help of his son, Donald and grandson, Ben, who lives with his wife in another home on the land.
Through it all, he is just happy to have lived the life that he has.
"I was glad that I was able to stay here and live a life that my parents envisioned for me back then," said McNeel.
Hefner finds passion in woodcraft
This January, West Virginia Uncovered journalism students spent a winter immersion weekend in Pocahontas County, developing five multimedia stories. This is the third of these stories, which are being published in The Pocahontas Times in subsequent weeks. Next week: Three generations on the McNeel farm.
Summer Ko, Mary Power, and Cody Wiegand
West Virginia Uncovered
When it comes to the art of woodcrafting, Mike Hefner is both talented and passionate. Five years ago, he began volunteering at Pocahontas Woods in Mar- linton. Now, Hefner is at the woodworking school five days a week, teaching apprentices and crafting fine furniture for the people of the community.
Ten years ago, Hefner was working construction when he was involved in an accident that would change his life forever. While operating a Bobcat, he moved too close to the edge of a hill and fell 200 feet. The fall broke a bone in his back and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
For the first few years after his accident, Hefner stayed at home with his daughter Elizabeth, who was six months old at the time. When she began attending school his role as ﾑMr. Mom' during the day lessened and he needed something to occupy his time.
Former instructor at Pocahontas Woods, John Friel, invited Hefner to work and started teaching him from the first mo- ment he arrived. Pocahontas Woods creates valuable pieces such as hutches made of Sassafras and Wormy Chestnut as well as cabinets and cupboards for kitchens. Specially commissioned pieces and pieces for nearby galleries are just some of the creations by apprentices and volunteers like Hefner.
Hefner said, "At the end of the day being able to look back and see you've ac- complished something, it makes you feel good whether you're getting paid for it or not."
Pocahontas Woods is a non-profit organization, run by a board of directors and Chief Instructor John Wesley Williams. Work is showcased and sold at multiple galleries in Lewisburg, Thomas, Beckley, and Snowshoe, as well as online at http://pocahontaswoods.com.
Tae kwon do is Joe Nelson's life blood
This January, West Virginia Uncovered journalism students spent a winter immersion weekend in Pocahontas County, developing five multimedia stories. This is the second of these stories, which are being published in The Pocahontas Times in subsequent weeks. An audio slideshow accompanies this story on our website, pocahontastimes.com. Next week: Mike Hefner and Pocahontas Woods.
Matt R. Murphy, Chelsi Baker and Matt S. Murphy
West Virginia Uncovered
Tae kwon do is in Joe Nelson's blood; he has been immersed in the martial art his entire life. Growing up in South Florida, Nelson found his passion as a child and went on to train at All-Star Academy in Wellington, Florida, rising through the ranks to become the second-degree black belt he is today.
In 2010, Nelson decided he wanted to move out of Florida-to somewhere "further out," as he says-in part to find a better environment to raise his three-year-old son, Kyle. His journey took him first to Inwood, and finally to Marlinton. Through the Snowshoe Career Center, Nelson was able to earn his GED and learned business management skills, enabling him to open his own tae kwon do academy in the Parks and Recreation building in Marlinton.
Nelson's martial arts school has grown to nearly 40 students, from young kids to adults-all joining for different reasons. But Nelson said that in addition to being a great way to exercise, the most important aspects of tae kwon do are the changes that take place inside a person mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Nelson has seen his students develop increased self-esteem, confidence and discipline. The changes he sees in his students, combined with his passion for the sport, are what fuel Nelson's drive to teach.
Chloe Bland: A multi-faceted teen
This January, West Virginia Uncovered students spent a winter immersion weekend in Pocahontas County, developing five multimedia stories. These stories will be published in The Pocahontas Times in subsequent weeks. Next week: Joe Nelson's Tae Kwon Do.
Donald Butcher and Melanie Hoffman
West Virginia Uncovered
Eighteen-year-old Chloe Bland describes her life as common, though some might question that pronouncement.
The senior at Pocahontas County High School is the president of her senior class, as well as president of the school's National Honor Society and Spanish National Honor Society. In addition to her academic achievements, Bland serves as president of the school's chapter of the Future Farmers of America and has been chosen for the all-state volleyball and basketball teams for the last two years.
In her spare time, Bland hunts and fishes with her family, with whom she recently treed and shot her first black bear. The episode resulted in a cut between her eyes from the recoiling gun scope, but she remembers it with pride. "It meant a lot that my brother and my brother-in-law were both there to see me kill my bear," Bland said.
Bland also assists her father with his taxidermy business. She creates bear rugs, helps skin animals and other "odd jobs." Her love for animals has inspired her to attend West Virginia Wesleyan College in the fall to study veterinary sciences.
"I love working with animals... The fact that they can't help themselves as much makes me want to be a vet more," Bland said. "I want to help them as much as I can."
Upon gaining her undergraduate degree, Bland wants to attend veterinary school at either Ohio State University or Virginia Tech University. She hopes to someday open the only veterinary clinic in Pocahontas County.
Something in the air
A decades old cultural movement is still prospering in Pocahontas County.
by Allison Rollins and
West Virginia Uncovered
LOBELIA - The West Virginia Uncovered project was created to cultivate online innovation and storytelling among the Mountain State's community newspapers.
Since 2008, students from the West Virginia Unversity P.I. Reed School of Journalism have crisscrossed the back roads and small towns of West Virginia, working with about a dozen weekly newspapers and looking for untold stories. In addition, the participating newspapers receive training in online and multimedia journalism at WVU. The West Virginia Uncovered project is supported by grants from the McCormick Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
In 1972, Joe Hartman and Carol "Cappi" Capolungo left Berkeley, California, in a Volkswagen van on a cross-country trip.
They zigzagged across the United States on a pilgrimage of sorts, looking for a piece of countryside where they could live off the land-away from the grid and close to nature.
Finally, after months of searching, they ran into Bill Huffman at a gas station in Marlinton.
"And he just said to them, ﾑCome on home,' as the story goes," said Rebecca Hartman Heunink, their daughter, who was later born and raised in Pocahontas County.
Huffman led Joe and Cappi to a community of like-minded people: young urbanites who had fled America's cities in search of a simpler lifestyle, a phenomenon termed the "back to the land" movement.
This was happening across the country, and the community that the Heunink's joined in Pocahontas County was a large one. At its peak, in the mid-1970s, Heunink estimates there were as many as 200 people living this way in the Greenbrier Valley, mainly around Jacox, Lobelia and Rush Run Road.
By most accounts, the first back-to-the-landers settled in Pocahontas County in the early 1970s. The people flooding into the region were self-proclaimed hippies, who had grown tired of what they saw as an overly materialistic society. In the Greenbrier Valley, they saw the potential for an agrarian lifestyle.
"My grandparents grew up on farms, and I remember my grandmother saying to me ﾑWhy would you want to go back there? We worked our whole lives trying to get off the farm, I'd never go back'," said Danette Condon, of Lobelia Road. "But it was what we wanted."
Danette came to Pocahontas County later than most of the early back-to-the-landers, in the early 80s, moving in with her eventual husband, Mike Condon, who had already built a home and established a farm on a piece of land on Lobelia Road.
Mike and Danette lived without electricity for years, until they installed their first solar panel in the mid-80s. Now around a dozen solar panels keep electricity running in the home. They still rely on a gravity-fed water supply and maintain a farm where they grow much of their food, and raise several cows, many chickens and a goat.
In the early years, the back to the landers often lived communally at first, camping in the area until they found a parcel of land for themselves.
Even after the commune dissipated, the communal atmosphere prevailed.
The back to the landers shared recipes and garden-grown fruits and vegetables. They learned to quilt from the older women who were native to the area, then made quilts together.
When two people in the community married - as often happened - the community would come together to both plan and attend the ceremony, which was often held outdoors. Dannette, for example, recalls that her wedding was attended by all her neighbors on Lobelia Road, and her two goats.
Families often got together to prepare and eat meals, and for spiritual services in their homes, rotating through different houses in the community, taking turns to choose a prayer or reading at each humble service.
"I think we weren't so much looking for self-sufficiency as inter-dependency," Mike Condon said.
"We could have done it all ourselves, without looking to the community for help," he said, "but then we would have worked ourselves to death."
In the 80s, many of the people who had moved to Pocahontas County in the first wave of the back-to-the-land movement were starting families. Nearly all of these babies were born in the home, delivered by a midwife.
Matt Condon, Mike and Danette's oldest son, is now 28 but remembers that his parents never had to rely on organized childcare for him and his younger brother. Instead, they spent time at the homes of their neighbors, other back to the land families.
"The community in the area, that was the family, so everybody helped out," he said. "If somebody needed wood, everybody would go collect wood. And that was how it was with everything."
Because of that sense of community, Matt said, he and his brother never felt limited by the lifestyle their parents chose for them.
More than 40 years after the first back to the land families arrived in Pocahontas County, many, like Mike and Danette, are still committed to the lifestyle they chose years ago. Others have moved into the city - in Pocahontas County. Former back to the landers are now teachers, nurses and county commissioners.
And many children of the original back to the landers, now young adults, are moving back to the community, with a set of ideals similar to their parents' - Mike and Danette say they see a lot of themselves in this new crop of back to the landers.
They loaned their turn-of-the-century era apple press to some kids from the "younger generation" in September, and haven't seen it since. Instead, it's been used at cider pressing parties through apple-picking season.
"I guess that means we're the elders now," Danette said.
Matt, who lives with his fianc�e, is still saving up to buy his own home, so he doesn't have a farm or any solar panels - yet. He noted that his own version of the American Dream looks quite different from the white picket fence in suburbia that many of his peers may be striving for.
"I will definitely raise my own child as close as I could to the way my mom and dad raised me," said Matt. "They're the perfect example of how you can live harmoniously with nature and have everything everybody else has, just not as shiny and new. If we can all raise our kids in the ideals of a lot of the back to the landers, we should."
Remaking the Mill
By Allison Rollins and Mary Power
Growing up in Pocahontas County, Lanty McNeel spent his childhood on his family's farm, at Mill Point. He often worked inside the McNeel Mill doing the chores typical of farming life. While today grains are ground into flour or meal by automated machinery, McNeel remembers using a pulley and rope, manually hauling sacks of wheat inside, and filling all of the bins in the mill.
While no longer in operation, the McNeel Mill, built between 1860 and 1868, still stands. McNeel can trace the mill all the way back to his great-grandfather, Isaac McNeel, who originally purchased the land which encompasses a mill, a home and a barn.
"After Isaac McNeel bought the property he started building the mill prior to the Civil War," said McNeel. "Then the war came along and postponed the building. I believe it was about 1868 when he finished building the present mill."
The Mill produced things like cornmeal and buckwheat for nearby towns. When the McNeel Mill was in top form, so was the small village of Mill Point. The community boasted multiple mills, a blacksmith shop, a post office and even a railroad line that served a nearby sawmill.
Nearly 70 years after it was built, severe weather took its toll on the mill. A flash flood in 1935 washed out the creek, damaging the earth and stone trench that channeled water to the mill. The water came within three to four inches of the platform where the grinding stones were set.
The McNeel family kept the mill operating as long as possible, but the flood had done considerable damage, and in 1940 it closed for business. The family used the mill for storage until the late 1980s, when they finally stopped using the mill for good.
In 2006, Matt Tate was taking a vacation from his job at the Mountain Institute on Spruce Knob, and as he was driving down U.S. Route 219 he spotted the landmark between the county seat of Marlinton and Pearl Buck's birthplace in Hillsboro.
"I just started asking who owns the mill," said Tate, "and I stopped in at Taylor's Grocery, and they said, 'it's Lanty McNeel.'"
"The first night I met him he probably spent three hours just telling me about the mill," Tate continued. "He pulled out suitcases full of photos, and then he had me come back the next day. He walked me through the whole mill, the house and the barn up beyond it. It was just wonderful."
Originally from Massachusetts, Tate first attended college at Northeastern University where he majored in mechanical engineering.
"I was disillusioned," Tate said. "All the other guys there were just struggling to avoid work. I was thinking that's not what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to enjoy my work."
He transferred to Colorado and later graduated with a degree in Outdoor Leadership. For years, Tate worked with youth at outdoor adventure camps, until 2006 when he found the idle mill. The discovery rekindled his interest in the mechanics of how things work. Today, Tate works for Pocahontas County Public Service District and focuses his spare time on the mill.
Located within a short drive of well-known landmarks like the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, Cass Scenic Railroad and Snowshoe Mountain Resort, the McNeel Mill is a gristmill-where the grinding of grain takes place. With a water-powered wheel and superb machinery, the mill played an important role in the community between Hillsboro and Marlinton.
According to National Historic Registry documents, the McNeel Mill operated with millstones imported from France that were used to grind cornmeal, cracked corn, and buckwheat.
"The stones weighed 1,000 to 1,500 pounds and had to be sharpened every two years with a special chisel, as the grooves had to be precise," said McNeel. "For one revolution to occur, it took one and a half minutes. If the process occurred too fast it would scorch the meal. "
Because of the flood in 1935, the mill was disconnected from the waters of Stamping Creek, which turned the wheel to power the operation. Tate plans to change that.
"I want the mill to work," Tate said. "I want the mill to be a mill again. I want to make it work with its original water source. I want the water to do its job. I want the [creek] to do work."
In order for the mill to work, Tate must rebuild the path to the water source. This means erecting about 17 log poles to support a long, wooden flume, or trough, in order to carry water to the wheel. Part of this project also includes rebuilding the race, the path that carries the water from the creek, which begins about a quarter-mile upstream from the mill.
The first obstacle Tate had to overcome in order to restore the mill to its former glory flew away-literally.
"We had a big rainstorm, and it ripped a 15-foot hole in the roof and blew the metal across the road to the other side," explained Tate. "After that, it shook up a little more attention that this mill was going to need a little more help or we were going to lose it."
The community raised $12,000 to put a historically accurate roof on the mill. Tate was able to contact the Division of Culture and History and apply for a matching grant for the other half of the $24,000 needed to get the job done.
"I think it's a sign of pride-that they are very proud of this mill," said Tate. "That it's so old, and it's something special that we have here and something people can point to and something neat that they have. "
Tate regularly opens the mill for tours during the annual Little Levels Heritage Fair and Pioneer Days. Last Christmas, he even put lights around the mill.
"I think that's one amazing thing, that this treasure is sitting 20 feet from (U.S. Route) 219 and really sat here abandoned and empty for so long," said Tate. "It wasn't damaged, it hasn't been hurt or destroyed in any way, but it's just so easily accessible."
"Everybody who has ever talked to me about the mill has been really enthusiastic, encouraging, and supportive and helpful," Tate added.
Tate is in the process of petitioning the National Historic Register to include additional parts of the McNeel property in order to make the project eligible for further grants and funding.
If he were to buy everything new to complete the restoration, Tate estimates it would cost $65,000. However, he hopes he can keep costs as low as possible with donations and items he can salvage. He currently has $1,400 to rebuild the flume and expects no labor fees by doing the work himself and with the help of volunteers.
Caring for Health
The Gesundheit! Institute seeks free health care for all.
By A.J. Lawson and Megan Greco
Rising out of Pocahontas County, W.Va. the Gesundheit! Institute stands in stark contrast with the neighboring communities. Though it is somewhat isolated geographically, a steady influx of people from around the world come through its doors to volunteer and learn more about a different philosophy for healthcare. That philosophy is that healthcare should be free to all and delivered in a compassionate way.
The founder of the institute, Hunter "Patch" Adams, was the subject of the 1998 movie Patch Adams starring Robin Williams. Patch started the Institute in 1971 to deliver a different kind of healthcare. Adam's brother, who goes by the name "Wildman" manages and lives at the institute with his wife Elisa Adams.
A lanky man in his mid-sixties, with a long gray beard and a fondness for tie-die, Wildman is soft-spoken as he talks passionately about their approach to healthcare.
"The connection is the whole thing. Without connection, without relationship, and without friendship, you are there alone, and you can't stand alone," says Wildman. "I think the medical community has become a business community. I don't think most of the medical community cares one whit about the well-being of the people they meet."
Born in 1943, Wildman is the name he was given by a friend, and he goes by nothing else. However, in Clown in Kabul, a documentary about the Institute, he is identified as Robert Adams.
"Everyone knows me as Wildman. If you refer to me as anything else no one will know who you're talking about," says Wildman.
He comes from a different generation. He embodies the turbulent times of the 1960s. Wildman credits his passion for the "Gesundheit approach" to a famous speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
"I was less than 100 yards away from the steps of the Lincoln memorial when Dr. King gave his ﾑI have a dream speech,'" says Wildman. "That was probably the reason we started our community. We offered health care for nothing from our home. The whole world was thinking in a different way."
As a law student at Howard University, Wildman viewed his education as a tool for creating change.
"It wasn't all about ﾑOh my god I have to have A's and make money.' It was about how to make things different and change things," says Wildman.
Defining the Gesundheit Institute isn't easy even for the people involved. Wildman looks at the Institute as more of an abstract idea about how to approach the world of medicine. A teaching center and library is currently being built on the 320-acre property.
According to the Gesundheit Institute website, the goal of the Teaching Center is to bring together artists, medical students, care practitioners, and others to design and execute positive ideas of health care. The library will house over 100,000 of Patch's books, most of them bought with donations.
Recently, the Institute broke ground on a 40-bed hospital. Wildman says the hospital is intended to serve the local population, but anyone who shows up will be treated. Forms of treatment will include not only conventional medicines, but also alternative medicines.
World-renowned architect Dave Sellers designed the buildings, along with the Dacha, the main housing unit on the property. Donations from his architecture firm and volunteers have allowed the Institute to more affordably build the structures.
Patch Adams bought the land for the Institute in Pocahontas County in 1981, but the construction on the teaching facility didn't officially begin until 2007. Construction on the hospital is scheduled to start following the completion of the teaching facility. Due to the limited amount of progress, critics have voiced their concerns about the Institute's intentions.
According to the Institute, construction of the hospital and teaching center will cost approximately $10 million. The organization generates revenue from the sale of books, apparel, and fundraisers, but the primary funding comes from private donors, most of whom are unidentified.
Though Wildman would not divulge the identities of the institute's donors, some high profile entertainers are taking part in the cause. Country singer, Willie Nelson, performed in July in Charlottesville, VA to raise money for the construction of the Teaching Center and Clinic.
Despite not having a hospital in which to practice, members of the Gesundheit Institute have found a way to reach out to those in need by "clowning." Clown tours were started by Patch in the 1980s and are now continuing throughout the world. Wildman says clowning allows doctors and volunteers to get closer to their patients, connect to them, and make them feel better. This allows patients to divert their attention away from their illnesses.
On one of the Institute's clown tours in Russia, Wildman met his wife, Elisa. Elisa is from Padova, Italy where she was working as a nurse. One day, when Elisa was dressed as a clown for a patient, a co-worker reminded her of the movie, "Patch Adams." Elisa called Patch, but because of the language barrier she was unable to converse with him. Through faxes and translators, Elisa eventually registered for a clown tour in Russia in November 2002 where she met her future husband.
"When I first met Wildman in Russia it was kind of a situation because I didn't speak English enough, and he didn't speak Italian, so it was an interesting communication we had," said Elisa.
Wildman visited Elisa during his frequent clown tours abroad. In May 2004, Elisa went on another clown trip to China and Tibet where they discovered that she was pregnant. They moved to Pocahontas County in December 2005.
"January 2005 was my biggest trip ever because I became a mother," says Elisa. Now, their daughter, Anna Maria, accompanies Elisa and Wildman on their clown tours. The couple's compassion and generosity has greatly influenced their daughter. At five-years-old Anna Maria has already expressed great sympathy and kindness for others.
"For Christmas sometimes she is opening her own presents, and instead of thinking about her presents, she stops and says ﾑI hope the children in Russia at the hospital - I hope that Santa went there too,'" says Elisa. "Or once we were inside of an orphanage in Russia, and she asked me what it was, so I tried to explain. While I was playing with the people there, Anna Maria came to me and said ﾑI am so lucky to have you and daddy.' So if nothing else, we are making a difference in her."
Wildman and Elisa have very high hopes for the future of the Gesundheit Institute.
"Anybody can choose at any moment to be part of the solution. It's easy. It's simple. All you are is all you do. Be positive, be friendly, and be helpful in public. Smile and make connection with the people you come in contact to all the time. It becomes contagious. Make community, and make peace with your family. You be the one who instigates the reconciliation. You will be amazed at some of the turnarounds," says Wildman.
A house with 20 sisters
By Erin Wooddell and Megan Bowers
Wednesday is class day. Everyone is awake and gathered in the lobby of the Greenbrier Birthing Center, where two toddler boys are squealing and playing on a pile of boxes. Their mothers, dressed in sweats, watch with smiles while three little girls dressed in pink sit in their high chairs looking annoyed.
One inmate starts to fix a girl's hair.
"Why don't you do this with it?" she asks, as she scoops the toddler's hair up and tries to fasten it with a pink bow.
The mother groans, "She's having an awful hair day."
These women are federal inmates, incarcerated at a Federal Bureau of Prison's birthing center. The center gives them time to nurture their children and learn to be mothers.
The Greenbrier Birthing Center was founded by James Clowser in 1994 as a part of the Federal Bureau of Prison's national MINT program. MINT, which stands for Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together, was created to provide community settings for pregnant federal inmates who wish to keep their babies.
The center provides the opportunity to give birth outside of prison with the option of staying to bond with the child. Most MINT programs allow the inmates to stay anywhere from three to six months, but the Greenbrier Birthing Center lets the girls stay up to 18 months.
"We can't give them what they need in three months to be successful," said Martha Barnett, director of the Greenbrier Birthing Center.
The center houses 20 girls and 20 babies and is meant for inmates that present a low-risk of escape.
The chosen inmates tend to come from regional jails with a federal charge and the charges range in offense and time, Barnett said. Common sentences include conspiracy to distribute drugs, drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud.
Pregnant federal inmates can join the MINT program by being sentenced to the birthing center instead of prison, making their attendance mandatory.
"I didn't want to come here," said one inmate, who was sentenced to the center after being charged with possession and intent to distribute cocaine. (For security reasons, the birthing center asked that no inmates' names be used.) "But it gives [us] a second chance and it's not a long program."
Women can also be evaluated for the program if they want to keep their child and present a low risk for violence or escape. These women are institutional transfers from regional federal prisons.
Two pregnant inmates served time for separate conspiracy charges at Alderson in West Virginia before transferring to the Greenbrier Birthing Center together. The other inmates' hospitality surprised them.
"The girls, they took us in... We got settled in pretty quickly and we're all pretty close," the 20-year-old said.
Although the Greenbrier Birthing Center is in West Virginia, most participants come from all over the United States and occasionally from overseas, including Cuba, Canada, England and Mexico, Barnett said.
"I've met a lot of women I never thought would be in prison," said one West Virginia inmate who was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. "But I never in a million years thought I'd be here either."
Barnett prefers to get new inmates two weeks before they give birth. This enables them to acclimate to the staff and center before the baby arrives.
At the time of a recent interview, one inmate still had a month before her baby was due.
"It's going to be a boy," she said. "I'm really excited. Kind of nervous. I'm ready though."
When the inmates are finished with their 18 months at the center, they can return home on a full-term release, move to a halfway house, or go back to prison if they have a remaining sentence to serve.
If the inmate isn't going to be released after leaving the birthing center, the child goes home with a family member, friend or to a state service.
It is important that families are supportive and involved with the inmates, Barnett said.
After being incarcerated, one inmate realized that she could count only on her family.
"My mom is trying to help me get my life together," she said. "She told me that the first time she starts seeing signs of me partying, she is going for custody. And I have that hanging over my head... It's going to be a big change, but a change for good."
Barnett encourages family visits, and many families are able to visit regularly. But for girls who aren't from the area, family visits may be more difficult and less frequent.
"A lot of the girls get scared," said Jamie Vaughn, the counselor Aid and fitness instructor at the center. "Mostly because it's their first baby and they're alone, without their family."
When families can't come to visit, the community steps in.
"We have overwhelming community support, not only locally but nationwide" Barnett said.
The Greenbrier Birthing Center is the mission project for the local Huntersville First Baptist Church, led by Pastor Jerry Moore. The church members call to check on the inmates, hold fellowships and make donations to the center.
"They are responsible for the luxuries," Barnett said of the community's donations of products like diapers, toys, bedding, formula and clothing.
Inmates use food stamps once their baby is born to pay for food and everyday items and the donations give the inmates more money to spend on the baby, Barnett said.
Many other church and youth groups around the nation come to visit the center, equaling over 1,000 visitors a year, Barnett said. They often help with projects. The center's deck, porch and sidewalk are all products of these visits.
When there aren't visitors, the inmates keep busy through the center's many programs. Education courses, counseling sessions and fitness classes all take place within the walls of the birthing center.
These programs, along with TV nights and an occasional Karaoke session, are the center's way of making the days less monotonous, Barnett said.
"Imagine living in a house with 20 sisters, each with a different personality," Barnett said. "It's really interesting."
In the future, Barnett hopes to get the girls access to more college classes or educational programs.
A major part of the program at the Greenbrier Birthing Center is being a mother all day, every day. Wherever an inmate goes while at the center-to the store, the doctors or to class-and whatever they do, they do with their babies.
The staff does not babysit, Barnett said, and as classes progress on Wednesday, the babies tend to grow restless.
The toddler boys continue to run around, knocking occasionally on the door where the Drug and Alcohol class is meeting.
When class ends, an inmate comes into the lobby and asks teasingly, "Who was that knocking on the door?"
Everyone answers in unison, naming one of the toddlers.
The inmate smiles, "I knew it!"