Our audio tour through Charleston’s West Side continues with a community gardener, an antique collector, a symphony clarinetist, a deli owner, and a retired pro basketball player. Plus, a visit to a local auto shop, a barbershop, a Girl Scout meeting, and Mary C Snow West Side Elementary.
Special thanks this episode to West Virginia State Folklorist Emily Hilliard, The West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, in collaboration with the West Virginia Folklife Program, it’s Out of the Blocks: one neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Charleston’s West Side used to be—I guess thirty, forty years ago—a very good part of the city and like most of the inner-cities, the neighborhood has changed.
A lot of people were like, “Look at all the negatives.” I was saying, “Well, look at all the positives that we have. Look at the opportunities that we have to plant seeds in these kids’ lives.”
People were like, “Oh, that’s where all the crimes are, that’s where all the drugs are, but I moved here and I lucked into a really great block. My neighbors look out for each other, we talk to each other, we have community barbecues in the summer. So, it’s really cool to have that as well. But at first, it was intimidating.
Around here in this neighborhood, kids say a lot of grown-folk stuff. You know, they gotta deal with a lot of things that they shouldn’t deal with as kids, but it’s the reality, it’s what it is, you know?
From producers Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, with West Virginia State Folklorist Emily Hilliard, Out of the Blocks: Charleston, West Virginia’s West Side—right after this.
Aaron Henkin: So, you have a photo album here that you want to share?
Thomas Toliver: Yeah. The reason I want to show it to you is because it’s very important. Okay, here they are. The young kids that I took over. Here they are, and they begin to grow up now. Here are the children now, they’re grown. If you know what these kids came through… Can you imagine a mother and father in prison and nobody? So, I feel so blessed that I was able to help them. They’re miracle children. My name is Thomas Toliver. Well, actually, I’ve been going in through prisons about thirty years. Other people may go to preach; I go to mentor. And the very first case I had… This lady, this family that I ran into, she says, “My husband’s in federal prison.” I said, “Husband?” This young lady ended up with four children. So, I began to work with this one family. One day, my wife and I had them over to dinner, the kids of prisoners… About four of them. And casually, she asks one of the children, “Do you know where these green beans came from?” They said, “Kroger’s” and everybody laughed but us. I thought that was very pitiful to know that we have kids that didn’t know how food was produced that they ate. So, the very next day, I went out and began to look for land so that I could start a garden. So, Charleston Urban Renewal let me have this property here. See these here? They’re called container beds. Right now, what’s going in here is winter greens. What grew in here was tomatoes, corn, green beans, squash, and turnips. We’ve already harvested this. It was a progression from men and children of prisoners to an urban farm. I also have an orchard there. It’s a peach and apple orchard in there. As a boy, about thirteen or fourteen, I plowed with a horse. I grew up growing gardening so we would have adequate food to eat. So, that is really the beginning of my knowledge of growing food, you know, the way I came up. I’m so thankful the way I turned out that in my family, now what I try to do… What I’ve done with my family, can I do this with the neighbors, the homeless and street people? Can I do that with them? This is inclusive. Anybody that wants to come in and join with me, they can. And like I said, it’s farming. It can be fun to watch things grow and then to eat it. It amazes a lot of children, you know, too. Even adults. It was so funny. I’ve had funny experiences. I had a bunch of kids and I had a bunch of tomato plants and we was planting them. I mean, I was showing them sort of the material. I drill the hole, another person would drop the tomato in, another would tamp it. I had a little… It was going good. But I looked back around and there was a kid pulling them up! [laughs] I said, “Son, please don’t touch another one of those tomatoes,” and the other kids wanted to kill him. But I couldn’t figure out why he was doing that. So, you know, I said there are some mental things but if you get kids interested, they love to do this. If you notice that a tomato’s rotting from the inside out… So, when you deal with people, you better deal with the inside so you can develop the outside. So, if that’s the case with a tomato, then we’ll see people rotting from the inside, so let’s deal with that and in a progression of time, maybe they’ll develop better.
Tammy Fowler: Okay, our showcases house all the very, very best. This is a rare piece.
AH: That’s, like, a porcelain dove.
TF: It’s a porcelain dove and it has all the information on it. Almost everything we have has all the history behind it. My name is Tammy Fowler and we are at Trophy Antiques & Hair. We do estate sales for our customers and we’ve acquired things from people that want to sell one item or a whole estate and it just grew and grew and grew. And a lot of people come in and say, “How do you get around in here? Well, if you want to look at my shop, you’re gonna come and look at it crowded. There’s hundreds and hundreds of items here.
AH: Let me ask you, have you had that Antiques Roadshow moment where you realized you had a super duper hot item?
TF: We’ve had it several times, especially in attics! You’ll be doing an estate, you’ll dig in an attic and there’s something you’ve never, ever seen before. You get addicted and you ask them on the phone call, “What do I expect to see here?” And sometimes, they can tell you one item that makes you say, “I’ll be there in an hour or so, is that okay?”
AH: It’s like walking through a museum, to be in here.
TF: It’s kind of a museum and I don’t do any junk in our shop. A lot of people like junk and it’s okay. My mother told me that’s how you make good money when I started out buying little things that don’t cost a lot of money. And our things are nice. They’re not overpriced because we have this shop every day and the reason I can stay in business is because I have my hair business on top of this, so we’re always doing something for someone. When my customers come through the door, they come first. Regardless, I’m here every day at 8:00 every morning.
AH: May I compliment you on your hair? You have beautiful, very voluminous hair.
TF: I have a lot of hair.
AH: What’s your secret?
TF: I have a little bit of natural curl in my hair, I frost it and it’s just good hair. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I never come to work with my hair wet and I never come to work with my hair straight. I think you should see what the customer wants you to look like, so that’s what I do. People nowadays wear real straight hair. My ladies are in their seventies, up to ninety. Now, would an older lady look good with straight, longer hair? No, they would not! Hair looks good pulled up, pulled back a little bit, and have a flair to it. So, as long as you’re here, that’s what you’re gonna see from me. We lived on a farm in Mason County and on Saturday mornings, we’d take our cream to Ripley to sell it and every Saturday, my mom had to stop along the highway and look at old, big plant stands, and they were made out of oak. And I think I have every one she ever bought, and I just began to think, “Oh, that does look pretty good,” and so, the shop grew and grew and I had my mother with me until she was ninety-five, and she would always say, “You don’t need that, but that sure is pretty piece.” And you know, I’d end up with it. So, my mom, the way she raised us was to be honest and sell things and not tell someone a big story about them that wasn’t true and so far, I mean, it’s been successful for me, as you can tell by the shop. So, I go right back to how I was raised in the country.
AH: I can tell you must have had a really close relationship with her, huh? You loved her a lot?
TF: That’s why I like my older ladies. They just fit right in with what I do.
Bob Turizziani: You always have to think about the air. That’s the real thing for us. It’s like a bow for a string player. You can’t control that, you can’t play. My name is Bob Turizziani and we’re in my living room in Charleston, West Virginia on the West Side, and I moved here mostly just because I could live in the same city that I worked, which was nice. Well, I play in the West Virginia Symphony and I like to teach, so I try to do a lot of that. What I really wanted to play as a kid was the saxophone, but I wasn’t big enough to hold it so someone had the bright idea to give me a clarinet and I’ve never managed to get rid of it since, so… It’s interesting. Woodwind instruments almost play entirely on the overtone series. We only have this many actual fundamental notes. Everything after that is a harmonic. For any instrument, it’s very easy to get bogged down in technical issues and always worrying about, “Am I playing all the notes? Am I playing them in tune?” Whatever. And that’s important, that really does matter. But it doesn’t really matter very much if you’re boring. The real issue is how can I take all that and try to say something? So, I decided I’m going to try and play a little piece… Well, it’s not a little piece. It’s part of an opera by Puccini called Tosca. In the last act, the main male character is awaiting execution—as it happens in operas—and he sings this amazing aria. But what’s even more amazing about it is the clarinet gets it first. “E lucevan le stelle” by Puccini. I think it’s wonderful that we have this connection to people who lived three hundred years ago and, I mean, I feel like I know Beethoven or Brahms as well as I know people who are alive today. And truthfully, I only know a small part of those people, but I don’t know much more of my friends that I see all the time. Everybody’s a mystery. But these people left behind something that I can explore that is not just words. I mean, I have nothing against words. My house is full of books. Reading will give me facts but music does that immediately.
AH: I like this sign here. Read that sign for me. What does that say?
Sali Janem: Uh, be humble, stay hungry, always hustle.
AH: Did you put that slogan up there?
SJ: Yeah, but I seen it one day and I really liked it. I mean, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you’re not humble, you really can’t make any money, especially with this crowd here. You have to make them feel like they’re home. This is their neighborhood. You can’t just come in here and say, “Hey, I’m better than you.” You won’t get any business like that. My name is Sali Janem. We’re at Sali’s Market & Deli, 829 Central Avenue. It’s like a convenience store. We sell cigarettes, blunts, candy… We have a menu. We sell Philly cheesesteaks, burgers, hot dogs, gyros. I’m originally from Palestine. I’m from a little city called Tulkarem and now we live here.
AH: Sali’s Market. It’s named after you, belongs to you… This is your spot.
SJ: Yes, it is. I’m very grateful. I had the opportunity to open my own little business, you know, with my dad’s help because a lot of people don’t have that. My dad actually used to own a restaurant, too, so ever since then I’ve been helping him work around convenience stores and restaurants.
AH: Is this your ultimate goal? I mean, what’s in the future for you?
SJ: No, um, I wanna finish school, go into law school, and become a lawyer. Hopefully, an immigration lawyer or a criminal defense lawyer, something like that. But I need time to do that.
AH: Talk to me about what you’ve studied so far. I mean, you’ve been studying.
SJ: Yeah, I have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. There’s a lot of people… That’s why when I studied criminal justice, there’s a lot of people that have drug offenses and stuff like that and they talk to me about it. I feel like I’m some of these people’s therapists here. I swear, I feel like a therapist. I just feel like a lot of people feel comfortable telling me their problems because I’m willing to listen, I’m willing to give them my advice, and I’m very blunt. I don’t want to, like, sugarcoat it or anything. I’ll just tell them straight away, “That’s wrong. You should not be doing that.” And that’s why I want to be a lawyer, because I’m always like, “No, that’s wrong.” I don’t want to be with somebody for doing something wrong.
AH: How long have you been here behind the counter?
SJ: Almost a year… Yeah, a year and a half. I work a lot. I don’t have a social life anymore because I don’t do anything but work and hopefully when I get somebody to help me out more here, then I will go back to what I was… what my goal is.
Levi Phillips: When I was a kid, I had a lisp. You can still hear it from time to time. And I stuttered. I was five, six years old when everybody else was going to play on the playgrounds. I played by myself because it was embarrassing because people couldn’t understand me when I talked. So, that’s when I started playing basketball and I fell in love with it. Just me and the basketball. My name is Levi Phillips. I live here at 831 Main Street in Charleston, on Charleston’s West Side. When I got to junior high, there was a teacher. Her name was Lisa Hicks and she was a speech pathologist. So, she taught me to speak out of the back of my throat and I became more social then, and that’s when I started playing on teams. Then, I got to high school. We won 38 games in a row, which is still the West Virginia record. And I played with two people that went to WVU—West Virginia University—with me.
Justin Phillips: Then, as he went on to college, he’s infamously known for making the first basket in West Virginia’s new coliseum. My name is Justin Phillips and I am the son of Levi Phillips. His group of guys at WVU was the first all-black integrated team in NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball. They said there wasn’t a thing Levi Phillips couldn’t do on the basketball court and he was a guy they said, “Well, you know, it looks like he’s not playing hard. He’s just gliding around the court.” And then the game’s over and he has a triple double and you know, so, that’s just the type of player that everyone tells me he was, and that’s what I’ve seen on film as well.
AH: What happened with your basketball career after college?
LP: Well, after college—1974 I believe it is—I got drafted by the Baltimore Bullets. I wasn’t getting to play very much—I was, like, the twelfth guy. I got a check every two weeks, so I liked that but they traded me to the 76ers, Philadelphia 76ers. I think they got two eggs and a steak sandwich for me. But I never… I never was a star.
JP: My dad is one of the most humble guys that I’ve ever met. He won’t tell you anything about all the incredible things that he’s done. You know, I hear all this stuff from his friends and his coaches and his teammates. You know, they’ve told me all these things. He’s very humble and he taught me humility, you know? You let your actions speak for you.
LP: My son—when he was in the seventh grade—his coach cut him from the team and four years later, he was probably the best player in the state.
JP: I think they knew I was Levi Phillips’s son and they expected a whole bunch, and you know, I wasn’t physically ready at the time. So, you know, the coach was a good guy and he’s still a friend to this day but what he did was he pulled me to the side and said, “I know your dad was a star.” He said, “But maybe this isn’t for you.” The long story short—three years later, I run into him and he says to me, “You are the best player in the state.” And I was like, you know, I wanted to say, “I told you so!” I wanted to tell you that then but, again, I could hear my dad ringing in my mind saying, “We lead by our actions, not by the things we say.” He said, “What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna work even harder.” So, you know, for the next, what, three or four years, every night: “C’mon, son. We’re going to the gym.” And I attribute that to that coach coming back three years later, saying, “You are the best player in the state.” And, you know, it’s simply because my dad took the time to mold me into that player.
LP: We have three different generations of basketball players. Two years ago, my grandson won the state championship in West Virginia.
JP: On the day—fifty years to the day—that my father won his championship. I mean, it was spectacular. It was something to see.
LP: The day that he won, I cried. That’s what I remember most. I cried. I mean, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I cried like a baby. It was a very, very special moment for me. I’m just so proud.
Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks: Charleston, West Virginia, West Side. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Steve Basham: There are very few things that we can’t figure out how to fix. I’m Steve Basham. We’re at Steve & Stacy’s Service Center at 130 Virginia Street West in Charleston. Electrical work, computer work, diagnostic work… That’s kind of my specialty. I sort of evolved to where I work at teaching the guys what they need to know to do that for me, and then I’m available if they need me.
Cody Creighton: Right now, I’m just replacing a battery on a Hyundai Elantra.
SB: This is Cody Creighton, one of the most promising young mechanics I’ve ever met around. He’s been a tremendous asset for us.
CC: Voltage is pretty low on it. I guess the cold weather just kind of knocked it out, but hopefully we’ll get it going here shortly.
SB: The proliferation of these computer systems is tremendous. Some of these newer cars have eighteen, twenty-two, twenty-five different processors communicating on as many as three different types of networks. So, it’s not for the faint of heart or the untrained. The biggest thing we run into with the young people out of the technical schools is they understand the electronics better than they do the basics. They’ve never thrown a rag over a carburetor to make it a little bit richer to see if that makes it run smoother.
CC: Since I’ve come here, I’ve learned way more than I ever even thought there was to do with cars and… Especially the older stuff, because we learned a little bit about the newer stuff in school but they didn’t teach us really anything about the older cars.
SB: I just always loved mechanical things. Mom said when I was a teenager that she never had to wonder where I was. All she had to do was go out and get me by the ankles and pull me out from under whatever I was working on, so…
AH: What was your first car?
SB: Of all the crazy things, Dad and I traded a mini bike that we’d used for hill-climbing for a ’59 Volkswagen that I had found at, of all places, Royal Oldsmobile. We were able to work it out because the salesman wanted the mini bike for his son. Well, apparently, he didn’t grasp what I had told him because the mini bike had been modified pretty extensively for hill-climbing and, Lordy, to a stop up to about ten miles an hour, it was vicious. That’s about how far you had to run ‘til you got the hill. Of course, he got on the thing—not understanding what he was into—opened the throttle on it and it didn’t move, so he opened the throttle some more, and then when it reached its RPM for the clutch to catch, it almost took him through the front window of Royal Oldsmobile down there. He got out to where it was up in the air and he was holding it by the throttle and, of course, he couldn’t close the throttle as long as he was holding the bike by the throttle. But that didn’t deter him from wanting it. So, we ended up giving him $150 and a mini bike for my first car. I was fifteen at this point but I had a lot of fun with that one.
Jeremy: I’ve never seen one this bad.
AH: You’ve got a situation in here, it sounds like.
Jeremy: Oh, this one is nasty. Rat got in here and ate all the wiring. It ate all the door wiring, ate part of the main harness here, and ate part of the dash harness.
AH: You sure the rat’s not still in there?
Jeremy: Oh, yeah, cause there’s the dash panel! But he caused some damage to this one. I’m Jeremy and I’ve been here seven years.
AH: Ah! That’s the garbage.
Jeremy: This was under the dash.
AH: A bag full of candy wrappers.
Jeremy: And fast food wrappers!
Jeremy: Clean the trash out of your car. This is the reason.
AH: Well, good luck with these wires. You’ve literally got a rat’s nest here.
Jeremy: Big time.
Kevin Wright: Actually, I was working at Footlocker. I got passed over for a couple promotions, though. I got mad one day, walked out, walked across the street and enrolled in barber school. That was in 1999. This is Kevin Wright. We’re in Coston’s Barbershop on 408 Virginia Street West in Charleston on the West Side. Actually, it’s a lot of bookwork first before you go out on the floor to cut hair. The first haircut, I mean, I was really, really nervous. I didn’t know… I was sitting over there, clippers in the hair, shaking and struggling, like, “Go ahead, go ahead!”
AH: How did it turn out? Were they satisfied?
KW: Well, it turned out pretty good because, like I say, when you first start out, they structure it. So, they’re not gonna let you mess up too bad.
AH: Now, almost twenty years later, are you glad you made that decision to walk out of Footlocker and go to barbering school.
KW: Oh, yes. I enjoy what I do, so, you know, I mean… It works out pretty well for me. There he is! How you doing, buddy?
Larry Taylor: Just a trim up on the hair and a shave.
KW: Keeping the mustache? Taking everything else off? Yes, sir.
AH: Tell me your name?
LT: Larry Taylor.
AH: You’re a long-time customer of Kevin’s?
LT: It’s been a while. He’s awfully pretty good. I’m lucky I found him.
AH: You’ve got a good head of hair.
LT: [laughs] Well, for an old man, I’m doing alright.
AH: Is this your neighborhood? You live around West Side?
LT: Yeah. Wyoming Street. I was a mailman for 41 years. I was carrying the Capitol St. route at the time. I’d stop at McDonald’s for lunch and a girl that I knew, went to school with, said, “I got somebody that I want you to meet.” And I said, “If it’s not very far, I can go.” So, she took me up here to meet her and we met. About two to three weeks later, we was married.
AH: Wow. That was a whirlwind romance, wasn’t it? So, you were on your postal route the day you met her.
AH: She couldn’t resist a man in uniform.
LT: Well, I couldn’t resist her because she had been a majorette at Stonewall. She was very pretty.
AH: How long have you guys been together now?
LT: 31 years. I’d already got fixed because I knew I didn’t want no more kids. [laughs]
AH: You guys met later in life. You met and got married later in life.
LT: Yeah, I was 43… Or she was 43 and I was 49.
AH: It must be nice to meet someone later in life and have that kind of second lease on life. I guess it makes you feel young again. I’m gonna guess.
LT: Yeah, and having a vasectomy makes you want to go to bed earlier!
AH: Maybe I won’t ask you to elaborate on that. So, you’re still together now? It sounds like you obviously care about her very much and you care for her, these days.
LT: Yes. I don’t know how long I’m gonna have her because she’s fading. But she’s still around right now. She’s 74 and I’m 80. We’ve had a good life.
Teresa Martin: I’m Teresa Martin. I teach second grade here at West Side Elementary and I’m also one of the Girl Scout leaders. It’s 4:30 and it’s Tuesday. We have Girl Scouts every Tuesday from 4 to 5. Today, we’re making a little clay pot snowman that I found on Pinterest.
Khadija: So, it’s like a little white pot. There’s an orange nose on there with paint and little cheeks with pink paint. My name is Khadija.
Adriana: My name is Adriana.
Nowa: My name is Nawa.
Mya: My name is Mya. I’m seven and a half and I’m in second grade.
AH: Do you like Girl Scouts? What’s your favorite thing about Girl Scouts?
Khadija[?]: That when we don’t know what to do, we just order pizza and have a dance party.
TM: We do a lot of crafting. The girls like to craft, so we do a lot of crafting. The past month, we have spent practicing our flag ceremony so we can do the Veteran’s Day program here and bring the colors in. Miss Dunlap has been working on the technology and the photographing badge with the kids.
Kathy Dunlap: And we worked on programming Ozobots, and they’re little robots and they take different colored markers and the different colors make them do different things. They had a lot of fun just exploring and seeing what they could make them do. My name is Kathy Dunlap, and I teach second grade here on the West Side and I’m also a Girl Scout leader. I hope they’re getting a strong belief in themselves and the idea that with some effort, they can accomplish anything that they want to. We have a lot of really bright, good girls in our group and I hope that they’re getting that self-esteem built that they need.
Katharina Fritzler: This is the promise. “On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country and to help people at all times and to live by the Girl Scout law.” And the Girl Scout law is, “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and to be a sister to every Girl Scout.” So, it’s very long but every line is just impactful. I am Katharina Fritzler. I am at the Girl Scout Volunteer Resource Center on the West Side of Charleston, West Virginia and I am the senior program manager for this organization. We serve 61 counties and we’re in 4 different states, which is kind of unique to our council. We serve girls in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio, and what makes us unique is we’re all in Appalachia, which is traditionally a poorer income bracket. And so, we give girls this experience that maybe they wouldn’t get elsewhere and make it affordable and low-cost as a council to help these families give their girls an experience so they can dream bigger and aim higher than maybe they thought about in the past.
Walter Tucker: Hey, Axel, come here. Come! Good boy. High-five! That’s a good boy. Lay down. My name’s Walter Tucker. I’m one of the musical directors here at the Marcy C. Snow West Side Elementary and I’m Axel’s handler, which is our therapy dog. He travels to all the classrooms with our counselor, so he gets the opportunity to interact with all the children here in the school. Yep, he’s sniffing the mic right now. One student of ours that was coming in in the morning, an autistic student… He would cry every morning and when he would come down the hallway and he would see Axel, he would stop crying, and so every morning that student would come down to spend, like, five minutes with him and then he would stop crying and be ready to go back to class. Good boy. There we go. Tired pup. I call him my little bear.
Janet Allio: It is very busy. Between medicines and accidents and boo-boos and illnesses… It’s lots of job security. I’m Janet Allio and I’m the school nurse and the healthcare coordinator, and on an average, I see between thirty and forty kids a day. They may appear in the morning with a bruise or a bump or something, but there’s always a history. There’s a history behind the illness, there’s a history behind the injury. So, one of my goals is to be able to meet that need, not just identify it. Some of our children leave here at night and they don’t even know where they’re going to go to bed at that night. I had a student that was not a frequent flyer in the clinic—I do get frequent flyers that just like to come by. Sometimes, it’s just for a sweet hug—which I love—and other times, it’s to try to escape out of class. But this boy—was about fifth grade—came in and he had been so sleepy he couldn’t stay awake, so he came down and I did an assessment and checked him out and I always say, “Did you get to bed on time last night?” And he said, “No, I was up late. I couldn’t sleep.” I said, “Well, why couldn’t you sleep?” He said, “Because of the gunshots outside my bedroom window.” We have the school-based health center, we have a dental center, we have on-sight mental health so that our children can have therapy here at school. We were finding that some of the children that needed therapy, their parents didn’t have transportation to get them to therapy or they would have to miss the entire day. So, now a child can miss thirty, forty minutes of the school day, get their therapy the same as going to the doctor where they can only miss a half an hour instead of a whole day. Before a child can learn, they have to be emotionally in a good place.
Dural Miller: Well, we do nutrition programs in the classrooms and gardening in the classrooms, windowsill gardens, which we take out through our outside community—well, school-based—garden, where the kids plant and grow vegetables. My name is Dural Miller. We’re on the West Side of Charleston. I’m a member of Keep Your Faith Corporation, which is a community outreach group as well as a literacy organization. Well, I’m from here, so a lot of these kids, I know their parents and things, so it’s funny when I can be like, “Oh, you’re showing off. I know your daddy.” And they laugh, like, “No, you don’t! What’s his name?” And when I say their name, they’ll be like, “Uhhh…” So, that’s fun and dealing with kids and gardening because, you know, when they get home with the vegetables, they have table talk. They have something to talk about, they’ll be so excited and then I’ll see a parent in the store and they’ll be like, “Well, now we’re buying vegetables when we come to store. Thank you.” And it be like a laugh but it’s beautiful because now just introducing fresh fruits and vegetables gives them a topic to talk about at the table instead of them being on them phones, you know?
AH: Tell me about your own childhood, your own school experience here on the West Side.
DM: Growing up in school, I really couldn’t read that good. I played sports and stuff so I got by, but being able to read was something always in my mind. Like, when I’d go to school, I wouldn’t want to get called on to read. So, I had a disciplinary problem. I was a bad kid because I didn’t want to be made fun of and I didn’t want to be… I was embarrassed of it, really. But I prayed about it and I asked the Lord if he’d ever show me how to read, I would show other people and the Lord blessed me, you know? And so, that’s what Keep Your Faith Corporation came from. Learning how to read is still a process for me, you know? And so, I really think it’s special because you can read, pick up a book, and be anywhere, you know? You can get away and then you can use your education to get away, if you really want to get out your neighborhood. So, it’s been a blessing to be allowed to come in this school and to be able to share my story with kids and them talk to me about some of their issues, and then get with their parents. We’ve got a basic needs program where we help with identification, social security cards, all that… Filling out job applications, housing papers, and this year, we just started a work-force development program and for me, being here is… I think it’s where I’m supposed to be right now, you know? Like, my work has really just started.
Lauren Farmer: My name is Lauren Farmer.
Michael Farmer: My name is Michael Farmer.
LF: So, we’re with the Bob Burdette Center. We’re a nonprofit organization that provides after-school and summer programming to children on the West Side.
MF: I am the regional coordinator for the Kanawha County Education Alliance AmeriCorps Mentors Program.
LF: We’re married.
AH: How’d you guys meet?
MF: That’s none of your concern. [laughs] I’m just playing. We met from a small group. I actually met her when I was on a date with someone else a couple years ago, and I was actually trying to hook her up with a friend of mine years and years ago and a couple years later, we kind of reconnected. I was actually working at a bank on the West Side and I’d seen her come in and I was just like, “Oh, I need to give her a call.” And then we ended up finally getting connected. It was really youth-related for me. I was saying, “I know you’re in the field, I know you’re doing this. I don’t want to be connected to this career anymore,” and really getting some wisdom from her about how do you get established? How do you get connected? How do we make this happen when—me, personally—I felt very disconnected from urban… just working with urban youth. I hadn’t done anything with it for years since I’d lived in South Carolina and really getting the wisdom from Lauren saying, “Don’t worry about so much understanding. Worry about being there and being consistent with them and then everything will happen.” And here we are, so and so years later with, what, nine to ten afterschool programs just in Charleston, you know, and having those specifically built on the West Side was what we wanted to see.
LF: It’s just so important for us to be invested in the place where we are loving people, and that’s why we’ve chosen to live here. Whenever… I used to tell this story. So, I was in the process of buying my house on the West Side whenever we started dating and he was a little salty about it. He had grown up in, you know, some not-so-nice neighborhoods and just didn’t really want to place himself back in that situation.
MF: That’s the polite way of saying it.
LF: But he really does believe in loving God and loving your neighbor is the most important thing.
MF: You can’t make a change unless you’re in the middle of that change. We can’t just say, “Let’s look at the issue from the outside and pop in for a little bit,” and then, you know, say, “Those kids will be okay after school or they’ll be okay when I’m not around.” And that was a really big force as to why we said we’re gonna plant our church on the West Side. One day, we might see a harvest and one day, we might not but we’ve been very privileged to see our kids grow up and come through our after-school programming, getting involved in ministry. I actually just hired one of my kids as one of my AmeriCorps mentors. She’s going to be working at one of mine and Lauren’s programs. I remember talking to her and she was like, “I was such a bad kid,” and I was like, “Yeah, you were.” But, you know, being able to say that we’ve spent these years with you… And now, for her to be able to say, “You planted seeds in my life and now, I want to do the same to these kids coming up.” I mean, that right there shows you the power of investment.
AH: You guys have referred to many, many kids as “your kids.” Do you kids of your own?
LF: Well… that’s a complicated question. But I’m currently pregnant with our first child.
AH: Are you guys working on names for the baby? Do you have any names picked out?
MF: We do. I like Langston Curtis Farmer. If it’s a girl, Naomi Louise Farmer.
AH: What do you hope Langston or Naomi’s childhood is gonna be like on the West Side?
MF: We hope it’s filled with joy. I make the joke all the time. I tell our kids ‘cause I think they’re more excited that we are, sometimes. I’m just like, “Yeah, you’re gonna be the babysitter, right?” But we make all the joke all the time. I say, “We’ve got to get you guys right so you can make sure the next generation, my kid has a better place to be.” And we’re seeing it here. I’ve always been a firm believer that it takes a generation before to affect the generation after. It’s, you know, it’s reciprocal. What you put in is what you’re gonna get out of it, you know? The word talks about, you know, what you reap, you’ll sow. So, we sow seeds of positivity and good things in these kids’ lives and we’re gonna see that harvest in our lives and that these are the people who will be influencing our kids.
LF: I really hope that… We’re not finding out the gender, so “the baby…”—I don’t want to call it “it”—will just grow up in a neighborhood where they feel safe and secure, where they feel connected to their neighbors, that they really do develop that love of God and love their neighbor.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to Out of the Blocks from radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick. Special thanks to West Virginia State Folklorist Emily Hilliard and the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. You can podcast this series and check out photos online at wypr.org/outoftheblocks. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is Charleston, West Virginia, West Side—signing off.