By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
Cindi Clarke has moved 39 times in her life. She grew up in a military family that was constantly relocating. As a result, she learned to appreciate the value in learning new cultures from new people. Clarke now makes her home in downtown White Sulphur Springs, where she works remotely.
Knowing what it’s like to be a stranger in a foreign land, Cindi was happy to meet a group of neighbors who are international students working at the world-famous Greenbrier Resort. They are paid workers, who also gain college credit and hospitality experience at a premier American property.
“They don’t have transportation,” she says, “so my friend Nancy Fife and I take them to WalMart and to church or wherever they need to go.”
But Cindi quickly realized that was only the beginning of their story. In a house near her, eight international students were living together in one small apartment. It was the most affordable option they could find within walking distance of the resort.
So Cindi decided to move, again.
This time, she would move across the street into a much larger rental home. She planned to open her doors to a number of the international students, five females and three males from several countries.
“I would like for these kids to leave saying, ‘You know, those people in West Virginia may be a little crazy, but they are awesome,’” she reflects. “‘We were welcomed with open arms.’”
Cindi got to work making the students from other nations feel welcome in her town.
J-1 Visa Program at The Greenbrier
Cindi’s neighbors came to West Virginia as part of the J-1 Visa Program, administered by the US State Department. In 2022, 284,486 visas were granted across the nation to temporary workers in particular fields like education, health care, and hospitality.
Slightly more than 1,000 came to West Virginia. Neither The Greenbrier nor the US State Department disclosed how many students come to work at the resort annually.
The Greenbrier employs international students through various visa programs, including the J-1 program.
They come from places such as the Philippines, India, and Zimbabwe, according to the students themselves. As students in hospitality programs, they agree to work at The Greenbrier for a specific period of time (up to twelve months) to receive professional experience and college credit. They pay a placement company for their travel and document expenses. However, once they arrive in town, they need a place to stay.
With limited housing options for local residents, let alone international students, The Greenbrier Hotel Corporation purchased a downtown property formerly called The Village Inn in 2015.
Formerly a motel with 52 rooms, The Greenbrier began using it as housing for the international students. The students say they are charged $200 per person every two weeks for a room, each room always has at least two people inside, and the kitchen and laundry room are both unusable. Records also show that property taxes for the building are delinquent this year.
The Greenbrier is owned by Jim Justice, Governor of West Virginia. He is currently running for US Senate.
Students say that The Greenbrier employs more than one hundred international students here legally in the United States on various types of work visas. Most of them pay to live in the hotel’s housing unit in downtown White Sulphur for at least some of their stay.
As of the time of publication, The Greenbrier did not return RealWV’s multiple requests for comment.
However, White Sulphur Springs’ newly-elected Mayor Cathy Glover has commented, stating that she was in the process of learning about the housing situation facing residents and students. She said she was unaware how many students lived in the city and would have to look into whether city housing ordinances affect their housing conditions. “I haven’t had a chance to go through the ordinances,” she said. “I’ll look into it.”
Student housing concerns
RealWV spoke to four students who only spoke on the condition of anonymity, as they feared that their visas would be pulled if they spoke publicly about their living conditions.
They said: rent for those who stay at the Village Inn is taken directly from their paycheck ($200 every two weeks); there is neither a working kitchen nor the ability to cook in rooms; meals are not provided at The Greenbrier either, despite being told by their placement company one meal per day would be provided; the hot water and heat work infrequently; and they’re told to keep the heat on low in the winter due to the cost of heating the rooms.
The Greenbrier contracted a local cleaning company in past years to maintain the rooms. Two of their employees independently corroborated the student’s stories, but they too asked to remain anonymous as they live locally and fear reprisal. They reported mold in rooms, missing water spigots, a laundry room with a padlock on it, broken mini fridges in rooms, and bug infestations.
Why would students stay in these rooms? Because the local market is saturated. The students say they are often left with no other choice. Some rent other properties as a group, but that has drawbacks as well.
Which is where Cindi came into the picture. She thought by offering the students a safe place to stay at an affordable rate, it would help enrich their experience of small town America.
Cindi’s new rental
After relocating so much as a child, Cindi rarely felt a true sense of home. “I never really experienced birthdays, vacations, or holidays with family,” she says. “Moving so much as a child, always in the middle of a school year, made it hard to make friends and feel safe.”
Which is what drove her to build a family, albeit an unconventional one, here in southern West Virginia.
“I think my desire to do this new ‘adventure’ was because I wanted to experience the large family feeling I never had growing up,” she shares.
Late this summer, Cindi welcomed her new roommates into the house. “The food we share is amazing,” she says. “They can really cook!”
The students enjoyed it also. They have their own beds, multiple bathrooms/showers, a living room, kitchen, and laundry facilities. All for less money than the resort charges for the Village Inn. They said it was a refreshing change that felt more like home.
But it hasn’t been without challenges. Cindi had to ask one student to leave for violating house rules, which caused a rift between the students. She said she felt caught between a rock and a hard place, but decided to take action for the greater good.
And as every rural homeowner knows, the joys of old houses are not always so joyful. Cindi pays the landlord an extra amount per month for every student who lives with her, but it’s not enough to cover the deferred maintenance that needs to be done on the aging house.
“It’s been a great cultural experience for us overall,” she reports. “I feel like I’m the dorm grandmother; they call me auntie.”
Cindi takes that as a sign of respect, which she wears proudly. She is excited for the future and already planning a trip overseas to visit the family of one of her students in southeast Asia.
“I was the new kid a lot and can relate to what the J-1 students must feel coming to a new country,” she says. “Been there, done that, and lost the t-shirt in a move.”
Cindi’s goal is for the students to receive the warm welcome she treasured as a child when she moved to a new place. “It makes a lifelong difference,” she says.