By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When she returned home after decades living outside of McDowell County, Penni Padgett knew she wanted to make a difference.
Padgett grew up in McDowell County but moved out of the area following college.
“I am originally from Coalwood but I moved back here several years ago,” Padgett said. “Growing up in Coalwood gave me a sense of community and home. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Marshall University, married and moved to Pittsburgh with my husband. We then moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. where one of my children just graduated from the University of North Carolina and the other is still attending there.”
As an adult, Padgett returned to the area and soon decided she wanted to make a difference.
“When I returned, the area hadn’t changed but it also hadn’t progressed with the rest of society,” Padgett said. “We had tons of green spaces and resources, but nothing had been done with them. We have the power to change our environment but many people are just complacent. Being from McDowell gave me more of an ability to meet with people. I wasn’t an outsider; I just had different ideas. I feel that if McDowell County doesn’t change its outlook we will get what we’ve always gotten.”
Padgett’s efforts started in her own hometown but when the town of Northfork reached out to her she was ready to help.
“I was behind a project that built new homes in Coalwood and that spurred me to seek out other projects,” she said. “Northfork has become an adopted community for me. The mayor just approached me and asked for my help. Sometimes you have to push forward. The people needed a little push in the right direction. They needed someone who is energetic and doesn’t let obstacles get in their way.”
Padgett said she thinks one of the most important efforts she has helped the town with is helping keep the doors of the Northfork branch of the McDowell County Public Library open.
“I wrote a grant to help the library in Northfork,” she said. “The library was in danger of closing down. I have two kids in college and I have always felt reading is important. I was a big reader as a kid. We had a library in Coalwood then and the day I got my library card was the best day for me. I got on my bike, rode down to the library, got my card, got my books and went around the world. A book will take you everywhere.”
Libraries are important not only as community centers but as public resources, Padgett said.
“I know the biggest thing for me as a mother was teaching my children to read,” Padgett said. “Libraries can change lives, so I didn’t want to see the town loose its library. The Northfork branch has undergone some beautification. It now has flower gardens and a picnic bench so people can read outside. In my mind, that makes people want to come and utilize the library.”
In addition to beautifying the area around the library, Padgett helped start a farmers market on the library property.
“We received a $5,000 grant to help beautify the town and give the library a voice,” she said. “My dad was a miner at night and a farmer by day. I believe in being a good steward of the earth and McDowell County has plenty of green spaces. That’s why I wanted to bring a farmers market to the area. I talked with people locally like Patrick Coleman with the McDowell County Library, Northfork Mayor Marcus Wilkes and Desiree Williams with the WVU Extension Office. We became like-minded and partnered with organizations like Sustainable Williamson and Elaine McMillion, who did the ‘Hollow’ project. We received the funds through Grow Appalachia, which has given us a foothold to start here.”
While a library and farmers market may not seem to have much in common on the surface, Padgett said the two have been very beneficial to each other.
“When you look at it and think about the big picture, the library is a great place for local resources,” Padgett said. “McDowell County is at the top of every negative list. The library can give us resources to change things and make them better. It can help farmers learn the best way to grow their crops. Having the farmers market near the library can help draw people to the farmers market from the library and from the library to the farmers market.”
Like the library helps local residents with their minds, Padgett said she hopes the farmers market will help them with their bodies.
“This is a start because farmers markets are huge now,” she said. “The prices at a farmers market are cheaper than stores and you can get a wider variety of food. I did a survey in the county and 80 percent of the people I talked with said they didn’t get the right amount of fruits and vegetables. Not eating right contributes to obesity, which contributes to other diseases. I felt that if we gave people the opportunity to buy vegetables it would help them.”
Padgett said she hopes the farmers market and beautification efforts at the library will reinvigorate Northfork.
“People in the town have started to show an interest in the raised flower beds and the area,” she said. “The flowers also highlight the historic coke ovens. Northfork is one of the first communities you enter into in McDowell County, so it has to put its best feet forward. It is full of rich history and is near the ATV trails, which are a great business opportunity for the area.”
Padgett said she hopes what has begun in Northfork will eventually spread through the rest of the county.
“We have a rich history here,” Padgett said. “We come from good stock in McDowell County. I know a lot of people living in great places and doing great things who are from here. We have so many people still here in McDowell County. I just want to change things for the better in McDowell County.”
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org