By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
When Rupert Elementary School moved into a new building on the campus of Western Greenbrier Middle School, local citizens knew they needed to take action.
“When we took over the former school campus, we had a vision of what we didn’t want it to be,” says Matt Ford, President of the Meadow River Valley Association (MRVA). “The former East Rainelle school building was an example of what the campus would become, if something wasn’t done.”
Fast forward a few years, and the campus has become everything except another empty building. Instead, it is the community’s central connection point for citizens.
“It has been amazing to see the journey,” Ford comments.
The Meadow River Community Center includes numerous active organizations on one campus–The Marvel Center, West End Youth Sports League, Rupert Volunteer Fire Department, Family Refuge Center, and the Family Support Center.
The crown jewel of the campus is the main building of the old school, which is being renovated into low-income apartments on upper floors and a health clinic on the main floor.
“We expect construction will start this summer,” Ford shares. “We will have a construction schedule soon, and we anticipate the construction being completed in 2024.
The Marvel Center
Specializing in quality, affordable child care, The Marvel Center is led by Connie Chester. She served as a leader in Head Start for more than 30 years before taking on this new job.
“We provide a place where kids can be loved,” she says.
They operate 7am-7pm every weekday. They accept Mountain Heart and private pay for the child care services they provide.
In addition, they operate an after-school program, a nutritional program, a summer progam, and recently began their own garden to help teach the kids about agriculture and supplement their own fresh food intake.
Enrollment is steadily increasing, and Chester says that’s because, “People know we will do all we can to help them.”
Family Support Center
Founded in September 2022, the Family Support Center is operated by Lesley Toliver and Jake Qualls.
“Our mission is to help meet the basic needs of the people in the Meadow River Valley,” explains Toliver. “It’s an underserved area with serious issues like homelessness, substance use, and hunger.”
They currently serve more than 80 clients regularly by offering a food pantry, hygiene closet, a youth book club, support groups, and educational classes. They even offer pet food, because, “You might be surprised how many people put the needs of their pets before their own,” says Toliver.
The FSC receives state funding and partners with Community Connections out of Princeton as their fiscal agent. Greg Puckett, Executive Director of Community Connections, says what’s going on in Rupert is exciting and inspirational to others across the state. “In the past year, we’ve been able to serve families in Greenbrier County like never before,” he shares. “We have worked with elected officials such as Commissioner Tammy Tincher and the mayors to revitalize areas of blight and promote resilience.”
Toliver and Qualls say the secret to their work is simple–they connect and partner with everyone possible.
An example of that is their partnership with the Family Refuge Center, a regional domestic violence prevention organization. They staff an office in the FSC two days a week. Kinsley Shannon, who lives in Rupert and attended elementary school on the campus of the current community center, works there regularly.
“We serve clients of domestic violence,” she explains. “My job is to build relationships with law enforcement and people locally to help. To watch the word of mouth here grow is amazing. People call for help, and then they tell others how we were able to help them.”
‘An Amazing Ride’
While community leaders may not have known exactly what they hoped the campus would become, they knew their major obstacles to community development.
“Transportation is a huge issue for people locally,” says Toliver. “That’s why we are working to bring all the services together here for the people.”
Commissioner Tammy Tincher serves on the MRVA Board of Directors and echoes the importance of connections. “Our collaboration has decreased duplication of services while maximizing other opportunities that otherwise would not be offered in the area.”
Dave Lumsden, a founding member on the MRVA Board of Directors, says the initial idea for community collaboration resulted from disaster recovery work following the flood of 2016. He says they came to realize that, “The back end of disaster recovery is community development.” And to be blunt, “the lack of any sort of coordinated community development activity in the Meadow River Valley,” is what led them to take the lead.
He believes they’ve been successful at fostering community collaboration, saying, “The Center is the connective tissue within the Meadow River Valley. When combined with Matt’s work on the Rail Trail, it provides a focal point for our community development efforts, helping other groups like Wellspring, the Shepherd Center, God’s Way Home, Valley Works, etc. coordinate their work. It’s been an amazing ride.”
For Matt Ford, the lesson learned along the ride is simple: “When you are working on the right project with the right intentions, those efforts are advanced in ways that you never imagined.”
Stay tuned to The Real WV for updates on progress at the Meadow River Valley Community Center.