OAK HILL — In a 2013 interview with The Fayette Tribune, Dr. John David, director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School, considered the group’s purchase at auction of the former Oak Hill Elementary School.
“We seek to create here a learning, conference and cultural hub,” said David. “Downtown Oak Hill is developing a new face (he mentioned specifically the farmers’ market, the White Oak Rail Trail and new amphitheater/green space).
“We want to be a part of a resurgence of re-inventing downtown.”
At the time, Vickie Smith, the SALS construction manager, said she knew the task, which was practically just under way, was far from complete.
The process of repurposing the former elementary school, now known as the Historic Oak Hill School, is a process that continues today.
The repairs and revamping that have taken place inside the former school which sits on 5 acres on School Street are too many to mention, but Smith, who has been with the Labor School full-time since 1994 and part-time for several years previously, is happy to mention several of them.
“It is a beautiful building,” she said. “We’re just trying to do good things with it.”
Among the updates that have been made include repurposing classrooms for different uses, including a conference room, a radio station, an exercise area and more.
“We’ve replaced flooring, put carpet in the auditorium. We’ve done a lot of painting. We took out the lockers in the hallway.
“We dropped the ceilings and put in new lights because the lighting was horrible. That helped with the heating, too.
“We worked with the Red Cross to make it an emergency shelter. SALS has bought and installed a huge gas generator.
“The first floor is all concrete, but we’ve put floor tile in other places.
“We replaced windows and doors with fire-rated glass, added new urinals, put a sprinkler system on the second floor and re-headed the showers and divided them,” she said.
The ongoing refurbishment is a labor of love for Smith, whose children and grandchildren attended school in the building. “I actually did my student teaching here,” she added.
“We’ve really just worked hard to make it a pretty place,” she said, “to improve things and to make it a good place for the community.”
Volunteers from a number of groups, ranging from college students on spring break to inmates incarcerated at Mount Olive Correctional Facility, all have been a part of the process of repurposing the building.
“We’re just trying to reutilize the building and bring it back to life. It can be important to the community,” she added.
In its evolving form, the building already has been important for the community. A number of programs are housed at the Historic Oak Hill School.
Aside from serving as an emergency shelter, HOHS is the “official location for HUD-approved housing counseling services for people who are needing advice about their finances, they’re on the verge of losing their homes. There aren’t very many programs funded by HUD in West Virginia,” Dr. John David, SALS director, said this week.
A number of related programs are housed at HOHS including homebuyer education courses, the YouthBuild program and courses on building construction for AmeriCorps and VISTA workers.
A food pantry, an emergency food center, the WAGE radio station, a gymnasium and library, an exercise center and dining facilities also are housed on the campus, along with additional programs.
“The space has limitations,” David said, but added, “We’re trying to enhance the value of the facility for people in the area.”
“When we have people come to help us, they’ve painted, they move some things around, they clean. The building is evolving, I think, into being a very useful facility for the community.”
Smith is passionate about her work through SALS. One of the first qualified female steel workers in the state, Smith has worked in the past for construction companies, including helping to build the West Virginia Turnpike, and has taught vocational courses in Raleigh County. It’s her work with SALS that has been most fulfilling, however.
“It’s a good organization,” she said. “It does a lot for our community. It helps a lot of people who really need help.
“You have to care,” she added. “It doesn’t cost the city or the county anything. It helps young people who are dropouts, gives them training, helps them get their GEDs and it helps older people keep their homes. What more could you want?”
Funding for SALS projects comes from a number of different organizations, grants, donations and programs such as the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation. In-kind labor is provided by hundreds of volunteers who visit Fayette County each year.
Continuing the process of upgrading the HOHS, which was built originally in the 1930s, is a positive for everyone, she believes.
“Everything that we can improve helps everybody’s property values, it makes us a better place to live.”
While the upgrades continue, officials are planning for more in the future, including a WiFi cafe where parents can visit to help their children with homework, Smith said, adding all the work done by SALS employees and their volunteers is done in a spirit of service.
“I love what I do. We all love what we do. I know I can’t do it forever, but I think it’s a very good program and it gives a lot of people hope,” she said.
For more on SALS and its programs, visit sals.info.
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