A 14-year-old boy walked home from school one day to see his belongings stacked outside his parents’ house in Denver, Colo.
That was their way of telling Nathan Bennett “get out.” His family frowned upon his hairstyle choices, which was sometimes green, sometimes purple, sometimes in a mohawk. They surely didn’t approve of the music he rocked out to – Megadeth, Pantera, Bad Religion.
“The church burned my CDs,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think that was real. You read and heard about it, but I saw it actually happen.”
Bennett dropped out of high school and worked at a burrito joint for $4.25 an hour. There he washed dishes, cleaned grease traps and made tamales. He slept in parks.
“I wasn’t old enough to rent an apartment or get a hotel room, so I found people to rent a couch from or to stay on their floor,” Bennett said.
The kid on skid row with the funky hair grew up on minimum wage jobs and an inventory job he hated. He went to college as a single dad with full custody of his son and is now a 35-year-old student at the WVU College of Law. And he is set on establishing a career in the Mountain State, thanks, in part, to “A State of Minds.”
He wanted to be a lawyer, but he wanted his law school to be dedicated to service and be a public institution.
Nathan Bennett at the Core Arboretum.
“Throughout my research, WVU came up over and over again,” Bennett said. “WVU’s law program has such a commitment to service, especially to those here in West Virginia. I thought, ‘What better place to put my sociology degree into action and get a law degree at the same time?’”
Bennett got an apartment the first day he toured WVU. He already knew what he wanted to do after earning his degree, too – practice general law in a rural area.
“Growing up poor and struggling with homelessness, I know that life doesn’t work the way you plan it,” Bennett said. “You play the card you’re dealt. A lot of people can’t afford attorneys, especially in rural America.
“If someone walks through the door, I want to help, no matter if it’s an elderly couple needing a will or two neighbors fighting over property. Some have grandiose dreams of corporate law or being attorney general or working for the IRS. I just want to be an attorney in a small town with a building with my name on the door.”
In class one day, Bennett learned about the West Virginia State Bar’s Rural Practice Scholarship, which aims to increase the number of lawyers in the state’s underserved communities. It pays tuition and fees for three years of law school in exchange for a student’s commitment to three years of post-graduate legal practice in rural West Virginia.
Bennett was selected, along with Sarah Petitto, of West Milford, W.Va., as an inaugural recipient.
He is just one of hundreds of students to benefit from “A State of Minds.” Overall, donations created 844 student scholarships, 57 chairs and professorships and 227 funds to assist research efforts.
The campaign was publicly launched by the WVU Foundation in 2012, with an original goal of $750 million and a December 2015 deadline. That goal was shattered in the summer of 2014, and the campaign was extended two years with a new goal of $1 billion. Donations exceeded that mark in summer 2016 and at the time put WVU on a list of only 37 four-year public universities across the country to have raised more than $1 billion.
“These incredible numbers show that people believe in West Virginia University’s power to fuel change,” said WVU President E. Gordon Gee. “People understand that we are creating opportunities, changing lives and moving West Virginia forward. With their generous support, more than 90,000 donors have chosen to invest in a better future.”
That future involves Bennett. He already has plans to set up legal shop in either Pocahontas County or Grant County. With the scholarship, he has a three-year commitment to serve in the state after graduation. He wants to serve far longer than that.
“Once I establish a practice and start working, why would I abandon that?” Bennett said. “After three years, I won’t want to stop. I’m too old to hit the reset button. I’d like to have a career in one place the rest of my life.”
The Bus That Saves Lives
On May 15, 2016, Ellesa “Elle” High retired after 33 years in the WVU Department
of English. The next day she received a letter in the mail that led to the discovery
that she had breast cancer.
Weeks earlier, she’d seen fliers around her hometown, Bruceton Mills, W.Va., promoting a visit from Bonnie’s Bus, which travels to remote areas of the state and offers mammograms for women.
“I was never worried about cancer,” she said. “There wasn’t any history in the family. When I was a young woman, I got mammograms every year. But after 20 or 30 times, you go, well, you know, and put those things on hold.”
Elle High at her home near Bruceton Mills, W.Va.
But something told her to get checked at Bonnie’s Bus. Otherwise, it may have been
another year or two or 10 before her next mammogram.
“I almost blew it off but a little voice in my head said, ‘go,’” High said. “And it was a pleasant experience. The staff was helpful and made me feel comfortable. After that, I didn’t think about it anymore.”
Until she received that letter. High had a lumpectomy, surgery to remove cancer from her breast, and underwent radiation treatment at WVU Medicine. The cancer was detected early enough that it was destroyed. She’s on medication now to keep it from reemerging.
“To me, I call it a ‘skirmish’ with cancer,” High said. “I didn’t have to do chemo. I’ve been really fortunate that way.”
Since 2009, Bonnie’s Bus has provided more than 16,500 mammograms and detected at least 75 cases of breast cancer.
It, too, receives funding though “A State of Minds.” Philanthropists Ben and Jo Statler helped launch the bus with a multimillion-dollar gift. The bus was named after Jo’s mother, Bonnie Wells Wilson, who lived in rural West Virginia and died of breast cancer in 1992. The Statlers wanted all West Virginia women, regardless of where they lived, to have access to lifesaving screening mammograms.
A new coach-style bus was introduced in June 2017 that includes 3-D mammography, GPS to find even the most rural locations and a communications system that sends mammograms to radiologists while the bus is traveling.
In West Virginia, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women. Each year, about 1,422 West Virginia women are diagnosed.
“Bonnie’s Bus saved my life,” High said. “It helped cut the cancer off at the beginning. Who knows where it would be now.”
Change for the Better
The cliche "if you blink, you'll miss it" rings true for Covel, W.Va.
If you're driving state Route 10 and shut your eyes as you pass the wooden, handmade Covel sign, you'll wind up in Garwood before weaving up around a mountain more suited for steel-stomached snakes.
You could type the person’s address you’re visiting into the GPS to get on track. Or not. Most homes here have no physical address. As hard as it may seem to enter Covel, it can be just as hard to get out.
“When I applied for the Foundation Scholarship, people around me were, ‘You can’t do that because of where you’re from. That’s not possible for us,’” said Savannah Lusk, BS ’18, Exercise Physiology, who grew up in one of those numerically unmarked homes in the holler.
A steel train trestle towering over Covel serves as a “remember when?” In the 20th century, this part of the Virginian Railway saw trains hauling bituminous coal from southern West Virginia to the port of Hampton Roads, near Norfolk, Va.
The train no longer comes. “It’s in the middle of Covel and doesn’t work anymore,” Lusk said. “But it still defines us.”
Savannah Lusk sitting at a train trestle in Covel, W.Va.
On a muggy May morning, Lusk hangs out in a camouflage ATV near the trestle. There’s
a one-room post office by a lifeless basketball court. She greets passersby with
small talk or a smile and knows everyone by name, although in the span of a half-hour,
only four people went through the holler.
“There’s uncertainty,” Lusk said. “With the opioid epidemic, you saw communities crumble. People who are good people moved away and some got into bad things that led to the crumbling of their homes and their community.”
Lusk is one of those good people who moved away – for now. In 2014, she was awarded the Foundation Scholarship, WVU’s most selective scholarship, awarding $87,000 to cover college costs for four years of undergraduate studies. Only 155 of West Virginia’s top students have earned the scholarship since its inception in 1987. Lusk was the first-ever from Wyoming East High School.
Her parents, a coal miner and a stay-at-home mom, had big dreams for her. They bought her science kits and microscopes. She tore apart gadgets and pieced them back together in her room. National Geographic was a must-read.
“My parents always looked at me and said, ‘You can do anything.’” Lusk said. “They gave me tools to explore the world and knew that I could change it. Growing up from a small pocket of the world, we didn’t get to go on vacations. My parents have never flown. So I saw the world through books.”
Now, she’s seen more of the world, traveling to Uganda, Bahrain and parts of Europe. In the fall, she’ll teach English in Bulgaria as a Fulbright Scholar before returning to WVU in 2019 for medical school.
At WVU, Lusk figured she’d hunker down and be a good student. She did more than that. Like launch a group that delivers meals to patients at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center. She was named 2017 Ms. Mountaineer, and traveled around the state as the alternate Mountaineer mascot and with President Gee and University leaders to recruit students and serve communities – all while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.
After medical school, she’s thinking of joining the armed forces to practice abroad. One lofty goal is to become surgeon general. Or a practicing oncologist or pediatrician.
She wants to return to Covel after all of that — where she might start a nonprofit. Or maybe she’ll take over her grandmother’s diner, the Second Street Station in Mullens, W.Va., where she spent summers waiting tables. Whatever it is, she hopes she will help resurrect a community that once shined shades brighter.
“I remember getting off the plane from being the Mountaineer in Oklahoma City and driving down here for Easter,” Lusk said. “I got off of the high of OKC and having fun and now I’m driving through the holler and seeing some sad stuff … It kinda sobered me up, and I cried before I walked into the house.
“WVU has made me the type of person to change where I’m from. And change it for the better. The people here are great. They just need guidance and the resources to take back what was theirs.”
Learn more online at give.wvu.edu.