WILLIAMSON, W.Va. -- Five years ago, Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick was trying to figure out how to pay for his town's sewer crisis. Jobs were nearly non-existent.
A few blocks away on Main Street, Dr. Dino Beckett's practice was flooded with people who couldn't afford medical care. Beckett treated patients free every other Friday, "but it didn't make a dent," he said. He started dreaming of a federally funded community health center where patients could pay on a sliding scale.
Down the street, WVU Extension agent Bill Richardson was plotting a year-round farmers market. There is no grocery store in the Williamson end of Mingo County.
Diabetes educator Vicki Lynn Hatfield wanted to canvas the county to find people who have diabetes and don't know it. She knew that the lower the income, the greater the risk.
More than 30 percent of Mingo residents live below the poverty line, compared with 18 percent statewide, and Mingo has one of the nation's highest early death rates, according to a University of Washington study.
"There are such good, strong people around here," Hatfield said. "We could save a lot of them from dying early."
Hatfield, Richardson, McCormick and Beckett all grew up in Mingo County. Schools Superintendent Randy Keathley did too.
Keathley was worrying about the children. One in three Mingo fifth-graders had high blood pressure that year -- 32 percent - according to West Virginia University screeners and 35 percent were obese. More than 80 percent qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
Keathley wanted to increase their physical activity and improve school nutrition. "We need to go that extra mile," he said. "Children who are hungry and sluggish can't concentrate."
They were all working on their dreams separately, in their own agencies, not getting very far. Then something interesting happened. They started working together.
First, Mayor McCormick got a lot of community development training. "If you've got a problem, you find out how to solve it," he said.
He revived the Williamson Redevelopment Authority as a vehicle to apply for grants and get things done. Dr. Beckett agreed to be president.
About the same time, Vicki Hatfield and other interested people started the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition "so we could have more clout." They issued a walking challenge: get a team of ten people and see if you can walk enough steps to get to Los Angeles.
"We hoped 70 people would sign up, and we got 180," she said. The next year, they got more than 300. "So we knew people are hungry for this sort of thing."
Meanwhile, North Carolinian Eric Mathis had moved to Williamson to start a solar energy business and a "smart office" that could provide sustainable technology training to the region.
All those people - and others with their own dreams -- started comparing notes. Sometimes they sat around the town's little coffeehouse and talked. Sometimes they talked at meetings or on the street. They began to see they were working on pieces of the same picture.
That was three years ago. "We saw we were all working on improving our quality of life and the local people's health, and we shouldn't just be looking at one little piece of the puzzle, like a campground or a 5K or a farmers market," McCormick said. "Our project became more about the way all these smaller projects are related."
They saw that a health center would bring the city millions of dollars and lots of jobs. The city could help start the regular 5K run/walks Hatfield wanted. A farmers' market, community gardens and recreation park would make the city more attractive for economic development. The Diabetes Coalition could help get the kids moving. A solar energy company could train people for new professions.
All those things could help lower the awful health statistics.
"We realized that the only way we can deal with our situation effectively is to work together," Beckett said. "And we recognized that health, quality of life, and economic development issues are inseparable. Once we started looking at it like that, we started getting things done."