How a Dying Coal Town Doctor Is Helping Reshape His Community (Part 2)

City of Williamson officials during a ribbon cutting ceremony.

A dying coal town famous for a vicious family feud has been rebuilding itself through an inspiring mix of cooperation and ingenuity. (Image via Radiant Life Magazine)

A fortuitous meeting

In 2011, the coal economy weakened, and the coal town of Williamson started losing more jobs. To help, Beckett decided to create a free clinic one day a week. As demand grew, they had to add more days. And then a chance encounter changed everything.

“One of the people who helped me create Sustainable Williamson struck up a conversation with this lady while on the DC metro and told her about my clinic. It turned out she was a healthcare grant writer. So this lady, Monica, comes down to visit two weeks later and says: ‘You need to start an FQHC (Federally Qualified Health Center).’ She started explaining some of it and convinced me to do it. It was a very high learning curve.” Despite challenges, the Williamson Health and Wellness Center opened its doors in 2014.

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The clinic has since grown from five employees, with 5,000 square feet of space and a US$650,000 operating budget, to now employing 120 people from the community. They also bought the Williamson Memorial Hospital after it closed and plan to reopen it in 2022. Excluding the hospital, they now have 70,000 square feet of office space and about a US$14 million operational budget. “And we did that in six years,” Beckett proudly notes. 

An essential element of Dr. Beckett’s success is understanding his former coal town community’s needs. That’s why he still sees patients. “If they ever made me quit seeing patients, I wouldn’t do what I do. I think that’s the secret sauce to our success. I can sit down with patients and know what’s going on in their world and how it’s impacting them, and then I can translate that into programs that address the community’s needs.”

Williamson Health and Wellness Center includes an active living coach, and, as part of that, a monthly 5 K run was started. It went from 30 people once a month to about 200 people of all ages participating in multiple-themed runs every month. “Before that, if you were running in Williamson, it probably wasn’t for a good reason,” Beckett jokes. “To engage more people, we try to gamify health a lot. So, for example, we created a passport.” Participants in the 5 K can go to the farmers market to get their passports stamped and earn points. They can then can pick out items as a reward. This is a simple but effective way to motivate people.

Beckett explains: “We still have our organized things, but now there are so many people running and hiking and using these kinds of ideas to do things independently. For example, we’re working with water trails with kayaking in the Tug River, one of the nation’s best bass fishing rivers. We’re utilizing our local resources, and people are getting back in touch with all the things around them.”

The community’s youth is also an important focus. They’re engaged in cooking classes and cook-offs, Fear Factor-style challenges at the farmers market, participation in the 5 K runs to a youth entrepreneurship program with its display zone at community fairs and events.

Beckett understands that the habits these youth set now will help guide their future — and it’s a community effort.

Dr. Beckett.
An essential element of Dr. Beckett’s success is understanding his community’s needs. (Image: via Radiant Life Magazine)

The profound value of local culture

In 2015, the coal town of Williamson lost 1,000 coal mining jobs and had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, along with health problems like obesity and diabetes.

But as good fortune would have it, on that same D.C. trip, when Monica was first hearing about Beckett’s clinic, she also had a chance encounter with a man named Daryn Dodson. Dodson, it turned out, made a lot of impacts by investing in communities in need. After flying down to Williamson, he introduced Beckett to Jim Coulter, head of TPG and “the Warren Buffett of the west coast,” as Beckett describes him. As a result, “The Learning Journey” was created. This event brought together 12 MBA students from Stanford and the heads of several national technology firms, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors. Their goal was to come together in Williamson and brainstorm ideas for creating a local economic engine.

According to Beckett, sustainable growth is critical. Several grants and other funding helped build out the infrastructure, but Beckett says: “If we create a program, we’ve got to figure out a way to fund itself so that it’s not always looking for more money from a grant or outside source.”

With this in mind, Beckett co-created AMCO (Appalachian Management Company) with Brad Smith, the founder and CEO of Intuit. “We use AMCO to celebrate Appalachia, to give us back our voice, and let us tell our story of Appalachia, rather than having other people, who don’t know Appalachia, tell the story,” Beckett explains.

One of Beckett’s goals is to help preserve the local culture. “Appalachian culture is about sitting on the front porch and listening to your grandmother or grandfather or aunt tell these stories. It connects the younger generation to what’s happened before them. When we lose 1,000 jobs and people have to move out of the area to find a way to provide for their families, that chips away at our Appalachian culture. These stories — who we are — that’s gold.”

In Beckett’s eyes, the people are what makes this area special. “People always say that our number one export is our people, and that’s because of our culture, our approach, our work ethic — that hands-on approach — that’s what allows them to have that success. It’s hard in the current social climate because that’s not really celebrated, and at times, your heritage is even looked down on. But our culture is what makes us great.”

The city of Williamson.
In Beckett’s eyes, the people are what makes this area special. (Image: via City of Williamson)

Looking ahead

Beckett has a definite vision for the future: “I’d like to help create so much success here — to create jobs, create wealth — that we shore up the southwestern part of West Virginia and make it such an economically viable place that the state will benefit, and it will allow people to stay here, grow the population, and keep that Appalachian culture alive.”

Among his other businesses, he’s part-owner of the historic Mountaineer Hotel and the former hardware store, which reopened under the name Local Lumber & Supply after 84 Lumber closed down, leaving the area in need. To help provide a home for the farmers’ market in the colder months, his clinic is renovating a year-round indoor co-op space, and he’s also developing a new technology platform to give patients access to specialists lacking in the community.

Because the area has been hard-hit by the opioid crisis, the health center has created New Heights Consortium, which helps people who have successfully gone through recovery to start working on an internship and learning job skills. Beckett says the consortium works with several businesses willing to give people jobs after going through the program. “Anyone can go through recovery, but if you don’t have something on the back end of that, you will follow the path of least resistance.”

Beckett recommends “Try This West Virginia,” a repository of ideas and resources, as a good starting point. “There was a lot we didn’t know and had to learn. We messed up many things and had to go back and do them again, but we learned from it.”

When asked what motivates him to continue investing so much of himself in the community, he says: “I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first got involved in all of this, my kids loved this area. When I asked them what they would do when they grew up, I wondered that myself. As we’re building all of this stuff out, we’re creating options and opportunities to succeed and do what they want to do. They can stay here. If they choose to stay here, they’ll have options—not just my kids, but others. If there were a reward, it would be seeing that it’s a good place to stay, where you can make a living. We all need a sense of belonging.”

Beckett’s passion and love for his community shine through everything he does. “I’m excited about our future, and I think it’s incredibly bright. I think with what we’re trying to accomplish, and with incorporating the thoughts and ideas of others, it’s just growing and taking on its own life. It’s becoming an amazing story.”

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.

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