"We went to the White House. We were having tea with Lady Bird, and her husband walked in the room. That was probably the greatest day in my life at that point. He remembered my name. He said if I ever needed anything to contact him. Yeah. Right.
"One of the stories I tell is about Rock Lake Pool. We were there to integrate that pool. Bernard Hawkins met with a group of kids and said, 'We need to make this community aware of what is going on.'
"So I went over there and I was hosed by the owners of Rock Lake Pool. They closed it down rather than integrate it. They opened back up later and everybody was a part of it. It served a purpose. It woke up a lot of people about what was going on.
"When I got to Glenville State College, the folks in town wanted you to understand your heritage and be a part of it. Coming out of Alabama to West Virginia, I started identifying with that black heritage I brought with me.
"There were only six other black students, so we were still in integrative mode. My life has been in integrative mode all the way through.
"I had some medical issues and had to leave Glenville. I got in debt and couldn't go back to school. I had a bunch of different jobs. I ended up at the old Memorial Hospital as a financial counselor, and I would go to classes at Morris Harvey [now the University of Charleston]. Slowly but surely, I got my degree in sociology.
"Most of my career was with Allstate insurance. I did really well, made Million Dollar Roundtable and everything. But I didn't feel fulfilled. I just knew there was some calling somewhere.
"I formed W.I. Hairston and Associates, a group that did all kinds of work with nonprofit organizations. We worked for the Children's Therapy Clinic, changing the structure and everything about it.
"Shawnee Hills took it over and thus took over me. I became the foundation director at Shawnee Hills. I worked for John Barnette, and he was asked to leave. I was trying to keep everybody calm about their jobs. Who's going to fire a foundation director? I was one of the first to go.
"It was shocking to me. Two weeks later, I was with the West Virginia Coalition on Food and Nutrition. Then the Commission on Religion in Appalachia came along, and I started feeling I was where I should be. I stayed with the commission until I came here for a part-time six-month position. That was 12 years ago.
"I'm the outreach director. I get people to understand what programs there are for the homeless in our three-county area. We are sponsored by 34 congregations, including both Jewish synagogues, Pentecostals and Presbyterians.
"Our major goal is housing. We have the Samaritan Inn for homeless men who are committed to changing. We have Smith Street Station that provides low-income rental for people who would have problems finding a decent place to live because of, say, a prison record.
"We have senior citizen places. We build homes for low-income people and educate low-income people on how to become homeowners. I am able to help somebody every day in some way.
"In this search for my calling, I became a pulpit supply person for Methodists and Presbyterians. If your pastor was leaving for a few weeks or even one Sunday, I was the one they asked to come fill the slot.
"I went to Westminster Presbyterian as an interim pastor for about six months and again for nine months. Three years ago, they finally came to me and said, 'You are the one.'
"So I am outreach director here and pastor at Westminster. And I am still doing my storytelling. That started in the early '70s. I was asked to go to a school in Gassaway. The program I started with was 'We Are One' where we look at the cultures of blacks and Appalachians. The stories were pretty much about me growing up black.
"Little by little, I got involved with all kinds of storytelling groups. I'm one of the founders of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild.
"I have an adult group of stories about growing up on Coal River, both made up and true stories of experiences I had. I'm all over the state.
"I am very proud of two things in my life: Growing up in West Virginia and being black. They were both very rich and unique things, and they both carry a lot of powerful pride. We are what we are: black West Virginians.
"I play my autoharp and do all my music stuff. I do traditional mountain music and black gospel and classical. I'm part of the Martin Luther King Junior Male Chorus.
"I love my congregation. I love my work here. I love the chorus. When I get up in the morning, I smile. That's because I have found that calling I was looking for back with Allstate when I just wasn't happy.
"At 63, not everything is perfect, but I thank the Lord I have this life and that I am able to give, including the music we do. I have a good time."Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.