News and analysis
January 05, 2016

Brandon Dennison: Hope on the Homefront

Ty Wright for The Chronicle

Brandon Dennison, 29
Co-founder and Executive Director, Coalfield Development Corporation
Wayne, W.Va.

The memory still makes Brandon Dennison angry.

As a college student at Shepherd University in West Virginia, he and other volunteers from his church traveled all over the state to help struggling families repair their homes.

On one trip, deep in coal country in Mingo County, two shirtless young men with tool belts slung over their shoulders approached the volunteers. They wanted paid work, and there was none.

"They were really motivated, they wanted to learn, and they wanted to work," Mr. Dennison recalls. "But because of where they live, they didn’t have an opportunity to apply that gumption. The worst part of it is that where they live is my home state."

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As a graduate student and then as an intern in the housing department of Wayne County, W.Va., Mr. Dennison began to ask a lot of questions about what it would take to create good jobs for the people left behind by the declining coal industry.

His answer was the Coalfield Development Corporation, a nonprofit that trains people to demolish, build, and rehabilitate homes and buildings in southern West Virginia. Participants are paid, attend classes at a community college, and spend three hours a week developing other skills such as financial literacy.

The organization earns 42 percent of its revenue by selling materials salvaged from construction sites. It has also received nearly $700,000 in grants from ArtPlace America, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and other nonprofit organizations.

Ever since Lyndon Johnson started the War on Poverty in 1964, outsiders have come to West Virginia thinking they have the answers to the state’s problems. Among residents, "walls go up so fast," Mr. Dennison says.

To build an appreciation of West Virginia’s culture among his staff, he started a monthly book club featuring Appalachian history and fiction. And he has his own brand of literary therapy: writing poetry.

"If you can write a concise, strong poem, it kind of helps you get to the heart of things," he says. "It helps me sort through the fog in my brain at the end of the day."

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