by W. Brent Sturm
Copyright © 2016 by Jobs for West Virginia’s Graduates, Inc. – All rights reserved.
Driving south out of my home town of Huntington, West Virginia on a warm spring morning, I realize why I love this place. Hills all around are bursting with budded trees, the sky is a rich bright blue, the sun shines bright through soft pillows of cloud. Lawns here are neatly kept with flower beds just planted and freshly mulched. There is no more beautiful place on earth, I think as I listen to the radio and sip coffee from my go cup.
Abruptly, as I clear a neighborhood of neatly landscaped houses, I am in the midst of what makes this economy roll. The Port of Huntington is the largest inland port in the United States. It extends along the Ohio River, but also here, up the Big Sandy River. Now I drive past mountains of black coal and loading tipples badly in need of paint. There are railroad hopper cars on the rails, barges in the water, trucks on the road, and huge – almost living – machines moving the treasures of the mountains up-stream from road and rail to water. Tows as large as sixteen barges will make their way down the Ohio to the Mississippi, down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and out across the oceans.
Gradually, as I continue my drive south, the loading stations of the Port disappear. Actually, almost everything disappears. For a long time I drive up the Big Sandy River, sipping my coffee, and listening to the radio as the station becomes weak and filled with static. There will be more development as I reach the town of Fort Gay, I think.
There were white settlers at the convergence of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork Rivers as the end of the Revolutionary War. I know that somewhere around here is a sign pointing to a Revolutionary War soldier’s grave. Here, at the source of the Big Sandy River, is a town. Or maybe I should say “was.” The town got as large as it ever was in 1980, 886 people; now, as the market for local coal has dried up, there are only 684 left. Never a large place, the little hometown did have a thriving business district at one time; as the empty store fronts and vacant lots attest. Now, there’s just not much left.
But today I drove on past Fort Gay and made my way further up the Tug River to Glen Hayes, an even smaller town. There’s almost nothing at all to Glen Hayes; I’m not so sure that it wasn’t always this way. But there is one large public building: Tolsia High School. Today, I’ve come to meet five young entrepreneurs who just don’t see that things need to stay the way they are in southern Wayne County, West Virginia; there, where the Tug and Levisa Forks make the Big Sandy.
Five young men, four of them students in the Jobs for West Virginia’s Graduates program, have started their own corporation. Yes, that’s right. This is not a Lemonade Stand kind of business; this is a corporation with a business plan and paperwork and capital and all that real business stuff! Right there, just south of Fort Gay, West Virginia, is the home of Coffin Skateboard Company. You might suspect that the five already had a favorite pastime; now they’re turning fun into profit.
Jobs for West Virginia’s Graduates is a graduation support and transition assistance program. Young people of great promise who may need just a little extra encouragement or assistance are recruited into the program. It’s a class for credit. They study career pathways, they learn job exploration, attainment, and retention skills. They learn the importance of being prompt, dressing right, and making a commitment to an employer. And they learn about ways to make jobs where there are no jobs: entrepreneurship.
They had a great idea, an original recipe for skateboard wax they had perfected, and some really cool graphics. They had access to a lot of timber that could be finished into beautiful skateboard decks. But they didn’t have the one thing they needed: money. They didn’t let that stop them, however. They developed a good business plan, and started making graphic t-shirts using their original art to raise the funds needed for the machines that will make the skateboards.
It’s involved a lot more than just planning, however. A good bit of innovation was required in order to get even the t-shirt part of the business up and running. They needed a heat press; they still do. I asked what they’ve been doing in the meantime. “Well, my grandma’s iron seems to be doing the trick for now,” said Tyler with an infectious grin.
The hydraulic press, the most expensive piece of equipment, has been purchased and delivered. There’s one part that’s been delayed by the manufacturer, but it will arrive any day. They got more ink for the t-shirts just a day ago, and orders are already piled up. Hopefully, they’ll sell enough t-shirts to pay for the heat press before Grandma’s iron gives out.
Meanwhile, the design work never stops. While the five were talking to me, they were reviewing the latest sketches for artwork that will adorn the bottom of the skateboards. Drake keeps a notebook with him all the time and sketches whenever he gets the chance. A lot of designs make it only as far as the nearest circular file cabinet; the best he brings to the group. The decks will be beautiful West Virginia timber, but the reverse side will have that edge that will always let you know you’re on a Coffin Skateboard.
No one would have suspected that these guys would be corporate executives when they enrolled in the Jobs for West Virginia’s Graduates program last fall. Students in the JWVG face barriers to success. Statewide this year, over half of our nearly 300 students live outside of a traditional two-parent household. About a third of their parents did not finish high school, and roughly the same number are unemployed. A quarter of our students are at least a year behind their peers in school. On average, they missed over four full weeks of school last year – for no documented reason.
But bringing out the unexpected is what JWVG is all about. Our students all have great promise and unlimited potential; they just need a little help in releasing all that promise and potential on their own future. And these guys are releasing promise and potential on the economic situation that exists all around them.
Driving back up the Big Sandy River on U.S. Route 52 (one time part of the major transportation achievement of the 1920s; perhaps one day part of the Interstate Highway System) I reflect again on how lucky I am. I am lucky to have been born in this beautiful place called West Virginia, and I was lucky enough to get back here as soon as my education was complete. I’m lucky now to have the best job in the world: running the best company in the state, a part of the best network in the nation.
I was a supporter of Jobs for West Virginia’s Graduates long before I was an employee. I saw the local program where I lived at the time and the incredible work they did in setting young people’s potential loose on their future. I’m never going to get on a skateboard. But I know that maybe, just maybe, the best skateboards in the world are going to be made in Fort Gay, West Virginia. And today, I got to be just a little part of that.
At first there were five guys, a sweet board wax recipe, and some killer graphics. A dedicated Job Specialist and a really great program were added to the mix. Now there’s a new corporation and a hydraulic press. Soon, there will be skateboards. And the promise and potential of five incredible young men is being set loose in a small town where the Tug and Levisa Forks come together to form the Big Sandy River, just upstream from the largest inland port in the United States.