"I learned to feel happy and proud I’m from West Virginia," said one young woman after a trip sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) program. As it expands into two other West Virginia counties, ACE hopes to bring even more young people to the same types of realizations.

AFSC’s efforts in West Virginia’s southern coalfields have historically been focused on young African-American women in Logan County. Mentoring gives these women a safe space to learn about themselves and their community with the guidance of trusted adults. Three years ago, a male mentor began working with young men interested in the program. The program has expanded geographically too; Mingo and Boone County high schools are set to join Logan County in hosting ACE groups in the coming school year, according to Lida Shepherd, who became program director in January 2012. 

ACE aims to empower participants by imparting interpersonal and personal skills and helping them advance to higher education. To accomplish this, the program takes participants on visits to colleges, provides test preparation, helps with applications, and directs students to resources like scholarships and fellowships to make higher education affordable. The program also uses trips to teach young people about local history, social justice and advocacy, and environmental concerns. These experiences give students exposure to cultures different from their own, often by allowing them to interact with others their age from different regions and even different countries.

Video by AFSC intern Adrienne Miranda

A great measure of the program’s success is the participants’ increased confidence, pride, and sense of opportunity. Lida says that in addition to leadership skills, the most important thing the students learn is "the ability to change, to move from feeling pretty hopeless about their prospects and not really thinking much about college to being a leader in their own life, to leading the community."

One student in the program changed her attitude as a result of her experiences. "What I'm going to do differently is take school really serious, look for the right college, and find what I'm good at."

Another "ongoing success," as Lida puts it, is participant service work. They maintain a community garden and help neighbors with lawn care, to name a few examples. Next year, Lida hopes to move the program towards more direct work on community issues, enabling students to choose for themselves an important issue and the best ways to address it.

Because of this direct service, community members know about and support ACE. Lida said, "[The community has been] very, very responsive. Everyone here knows and understands the desperate need for positive activities for young people who are not always given many opportunities to interact with positive adult role models." In Logan, where it is more established, ACE partners with other community groups to build coalitions. The community garden in particular draws diverse groups of supporters; recently, ACE participants taught students at a head start program how to garden. This type of collaboration would eventually be possible in Mingo and Boone counties as well.

Through all of ACE’s changes, leaders have never lost sight of what really matters: empowering the next generation. Lida explained, "We are rooted in the belief that these students have so much to offer the community. Young people really are the future."

- AFSC intern Emily Blackner