Social Activism Alive and Well in Wheeling

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

Social activism is alive and well here in Wheeling. Need proof? Local movers and shakers Rosemary Ketchum, Jenny Smith and family, Michelle Poole and family, and Jenny Craig were honored as local heroes by the West Virginia Healthy Kids & Families Coalition (WVHKFC.) In addition to these families and individuals, West Virginia teachers and service personnel were awarded the Coalition’s West Virginian of the Year award.

The WVHKFC is a statewide anti-poverty agency that fights to make West Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family, no matter who you are. Awardees who personify this mission are recognized annually at the Coalition’s annual fundraising dinner, which was held in November.

West Virginian of the Year

Organizers of the awards event say that this year’s choice for West Virginian of the Year was an easy one. “The teachers and school service personnel truly showed us what democracy looks like,” said WVHKFC Director Jennifer Wells. “They fought for their livelihoods, for our kids, for our schools — they sparked a worldwide movement with their courage.”

The teachers’ work stoppage in February and March last year, in protest of low wages and increasing health care costs, resulted in a five percent wage increase and inspired teachers in Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky to organize their own protests. “My life changed last spring,” said former WVHKFC Director Stephen Smith. “I started to believe the impossible was possible. I started to believe that government of the people, by the people, and for the people still meant something. I started to believe that we could fight for what’s right instead of what’s normal. Thank you, teachers and school service personnel!”

Jenny Craig

Craig is a local teacher and president of the Ohio County Education Association who was one of two West Virginians to win the WVHKFC Teacher/Activist of the Year Award. “I am beyond humbled and honored to receive the educator-activist award. I teach special education in the middle school and community I grew up in. Giving back and inspiring others to take the issues surrounding public education seriously has become my passion. My hope is that every student in West Virginia is given the opportunities to succeed to their fullest potential. This starts with well-funded public schools staffed with highly-qualified teachers and service personnel. I am excited for the future and will continue to fight for public education to ensure that all students in West Virginia have access to well-funded schools and increased educational opportunities,” said Craig.

Jenny Craig — Teacher-Activist of the Year

Amy Jo Hutchison, who nominated Jenny for this award, said “Jenny’s red shirt reminds me of her heart, which she wears on her sleeve. She isn’t afraid to get dirty on her family’s farm, in her classroom with impoverished kiddos in her childhood neighborhood, or while canvassing for electoral wins. Jenny is dedicated to the fight for right.”

Michelle Poole and Jenny Smith and Families

The Poole and Smith families were two of four families honored as Family of the Year. Jenny Smith said that she and daughter Eldana, along with Michelle Poole and her children Eldana, Alonna, Amari and Devyn, have been working with a host of other community members and the Ohio County Schools administration to address racial issues and intolerance within the school system. “We have connected a network of people to provide information and support to students facing discrimination, as well as activities and opportunities to promote the celebration of diversity,” said Smith.

Subscribe to Weelunk
Jenny Smith, left, and Michelle Poole

Poole added, “To be honored for doing what is natural is quite unexpected, and it’s rewarding to receive such a wonderful award. As a single mother, it’s important to stand up for what should be expected, and to do that alongside your children is so refreshing. It gives me hope for a promising future.” Smith agreed. “I’m honored to be recognized among such an amazing group! Collaborating with dedicated people in our community and across the state has been an energizing and rewarding experience,” she said.

Michelle Poole and family — Family of the Year

Jennifer Wells, who nominated the two Wheeling families, said of the Smiths, “Jenny and Eldana, you are brave. You came forth one January evening with such fire and determination that you stopped power in its tracks.” About the Pooles, Jennifer noted, “Michelle, Alonna, Amari and Devyn, you are creating history in real time. You are lifting an entire community as you build your power and voice.”

Amari Poole, Eldana Smith and Alonna Poole — members of the Families of the Year

Rosemary Ketchum

Ketchum is a familiar face in Wheeling. She is the assistant director of NAMI — Marian House Drop-In Center, is president of the Northern Panhandle Chapter of the ACLU of West Virginia, serves on the board of Ohio Valley Pride as their community liaison and works in many other ways to advocate for the most vulnerable community members in our area. In recognition of those efforts, Ketchum received the WVHKFC’s Community Superstar of the Year award.

Rosemary Ketchum — Community Superstar of the Year

“I am so grateful to the WVHKFC for acknowledging change-makers like our West Virginia teachers and families. When I found out that I was chosen for the Community Superstar award, I was taken aback. Working on behalf of vulnerable populations in the state has changed my life, and although my work represents only a small part of the changing face of West Virginia, I am proud to be part of a larger movement of strong, progressive, and persistent West Virginia leaders,” Rosemary said. She was nominated for her work to make Wheeling a better, more inclusive community for all its citizens.

Below is the full list of this year’s Local Hero Award Winners:

Community of the Year:

Rockwool-Impacted Community, Jefferson County

Community Organizer of the Year:

Gabrielle Chapman (CARE Coalition) and Loretta Young (Race Matters Lewisburg) — Joint Award

Family of the Year:

Deanna McKinney and Shanequa Smith, Charleston

The Pooles and Smiths, Wheeling

Grassroots Organization of the Year:

Summers County Huddle

Student of the Year:

Chase Broyles

Teacher-Activist of the Year:

Jenny Craig, Wheeling

Staci Gilliam, Williamson

Volunteer of the Year:

Jean Srodes, Pocahontas County

Community Superstar of the Year :

Rosemary Ketchum, Wheeling

West Virginian of the Year:

West Virginia Teachers and School Service Personnel

• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.