How unity paid off for W.Va. families

Last month, a miracle happened. Against all odds, the Legislature found $1.06 million in funding to save dozens of programs statewide that help our most vulnerable children and families.

This victory is not only about $1.06 million; it’s proof that democracy in West Virginia is alive and well. So how did a group of low-income families, children’s advocates, religious leaders and other allies buck the odds?

This was a campaign aimed to unite, not divide.

The Our Children, Our Future Campaign is a statewide effort, with more than 177 partners. The campaign’s premise is that the only way we can change the future for our children is to be united. That means leadership from churches and community groups, Republicans and Democrats, unions and chambers of commerce, teachers and doctors, and most of all: the children and families who are most affected.

On this particular issue, a huge, diverse coalition emerged: thousands of everyday citizens, the bishops of West Virginia’s three largest denominations, Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement, organized labor, business leaders and community groups of every stripe.

But that public display of unity only scratches the surface. Back in November, Family Resource Networks and Starting Points Centers agreed to fight for their funding together.  Then, when initial cuts were announced in January, they bravely decided to widen the circle to include domestic violence programs, child advocacy centers, home visitors and child abuse prevention groups – all of whom had been cut.

All for one, and one for all.  In a year when every dollar was going to be hard fought, the leaders of these various programs bravely agreed that they would rather their programs suffer united than survive divided.

To be sure, their resolve was tested. In March, one of the programs was offered the chance to get their funding restored, but it would have meant the other groups wouldn’t get theirs. Its leaders said, “No.”  A few weeks ago, child abuse prevention programs were re-granted $260,000 through a loophole; instead of declaring victory, that faction’s leaders showed up the next day at a press conference to say that it wasn’t a victory until everyone was restored. That’s what unity looks like.

But that’s still not the full story.  Those groups couldn’t have done it by themselves; they also agreed to unite their issue with various other issue campaigns under the shared banner of the Our Children, Our Future Campaign.

That campaign and its allies were actually successful on six issues this year – raising the minimum wage, the Future Fund, parent mentoring, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Land Trust legislation and increasing physical activity in schools.

On May 16, members of the governor’s staff met with community leaders, abuse survivors and lawmakers. They told us that nothing would be done regarding the budget cuts before next year.

On May 20, 225+ parents, advocates, and workers held a vigil at the Capitol, recognizing the real costs of the cuts: 80 people losing jobs, more than 1,000 families in crisis losing support.

House and Senate Leaders leveled with us. They told us “never give up.” They also told us not to get our hopes up.

But the next morning, House Republicans and Democrats each issued proposed amendments that would restore funding through gaming revenues – something that previously seemed impossible. Then, the House passed the amendment 90-0. The Senate passed it 30-1. On May 22, Governor Tomblin praised the Legislature and said he planned to sign the bill. One week after the vigil, on May 27, the governor signed the bill.

Unity is important. But victories like this aren’t possible without leadership from everyday citizens. The restoration of children’s programs proves that the voices of voters can still trump the sway of a lobbyist.  …voters like Jamie Gudiel and Sabrina Shrader, two forceful West Virginians who make up what they lack in income with more than enough fearlessness and determination.

Jamie and Sabrina sent a letter to the governor and asked him for a meeting directly with the children and families who would be affected by the cuts. They never got their meeting with the governor, but they took every opportunity they did get. They educated his staff and cabinet secretaries about the issue, they prepared other families to tell their own stories to reporters, and they helped lead our vigil for families who would lose jobs and services.

… voters like Celena Roby and Roger Lockridge, who courageously re-lived their own experiences as survivors of abuse so that lawmakers and members of the media could understand what was at stake.

… voters like the 812 people who asked off of work to come down to the Capitol in the dead of winter, less than three weeks after the water crisis. Or the 225 more who showed up at the May vigil when everyone thought that it was a lost cause.

…voters like those who organized 18 regional forums in their communities, so that legislators could hear from their constituents first-hand about the issues that matter to them.

Yet even combined with the other victories won by the Our Children, Our Future Campaign and its allies, we are still just scratching the surface.

We are both dads with young kids. We are in it for the long haul, because we are not ready to hand over a world to our sons that is worse than the one that our parents gave to us.  Neither are the moms and dads who volunteer with the Our Children, Our Future Campaign but we could use your help.

Like our Facebook page (Our Children Our Future WV) to get updates on the campaign or consider attending our upcoming policy workshops and policy symposium this summer, where we will start the process all over again of picking our top issues and turning out voters for next year.

Jim McKay is with Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia and Stephen Smith is with the West Virginia Healthy Kid and Families Coalition. Both are members of the Our Children, Our Future Steering Committee


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