Students at Ripley High School have the same complaint about their hometown as most small town teenagers. They say there’s nothing to do. “When sports are done, it’s a drag,” Ripley High junior Tyler Hilbert says. Fellow junior Jeana Mahan says Ripley’s young people head to Charleston or Parkersburg when they are looking for fun—or they’re forced to make their own. “A lot of the kids go to Walmart.” She once watched some friends tie a shopping cart to a pickup truck for a parking lot version of water skiing.
But instead of just complaining, some students at Ripley High are working to improve their community. It started with a project in teacher Emily Oakes’ senior English class in fall 2014. Inspired by a similar project by a teacher at Wirt County High, Oakes had her students research the Turn This Town Around campaign West Virginia Focus is conducting with the West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The students learned about its debut in January 2014, looked at each of the towns that were considered that first year, and watched the progress in the original Turn this Town Around communities, Matewan and Grafton. Oakes then moved into the second phase of her assignment: She challenged students to figure out how to emulate Turn This Town Around in Ripley.
Serendipity soon intervened. As part of a class assignment, students Kaitlynn Weaver and Alyssa Ballard attended a city council meeting in December. During the meeting council members mentioned their community was one of the finalists to become a 2015 Turn This Town Around participant, although “no one really knew what Turn This Town Around was,” Weaver says.
So Weaver and Ballard spoke up and told the council what they knew about the program. Ripley Mayor Carolyn Rader paid a visit to the school to continue the discussion. In January, after an online vote that drew tens of thousands of ballots, Ripley and Whitesville emerged as the 2015 Turn This Town Around communities. Oakes said her class project quickly morphed from a thought exercise to something with big potential. She pulled together interested students from several of her classes and formed a Turn This Town Around club. “If it’s happening, I want them to be involved,” Oakes says.
In the weeks leading up to Ripley’s first Turn This Town Around community meeting on March 16, club members wrote stories for the school’s Viking Press newspaper, set up an email list and promotional Twitter account, and recorded videos to play over the school’s TV system. They also badgered their peers to attend the meeting. “We love Ripley. I think we are the future of this town,” Mahan says. “If we didn’t speak up, how are people going to know what we want?”
Several club members participated in Ripley’s first meeting, where residents identified projects they hope to complete over the next year and beyond. And while Ripley is just beginning the process, the students’ research has already taught them an important lesson about Turn This Town Around. “It’s more than just a wish list. People have to realize what you put into it is what you get out of it,” Weaver says.