Working wonders: ‘Wise Works’ program a hit in distressed county

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WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – Dakota Ramey picked up on a few things pretty quickly during his first trip to jail.

“Going to jail for that first time really kind of opened my eyes, like ‘I don’t want to be here, being told what to do,'” the 24-year-old Wise Countian said from the Norton City Garage where he now works.

“I just want to get out, be free, live my own life — try to do better,'” he remembers thinking six years ago.

But Ramey, who’d admittedly gotten into “hard and soft” drugs and hadn’t ever had much guidance in his life, found himself facing significant jail time late last year.

“I thought I was going away,” Ramey said while standing on the garage’s shop floor. “I didn’t know there was this program or anything about it.”

“This program” is something called “Wise Works.” Thanks to it and to Ramey’s efforts, 10 months after he was staring down jail time he’s completed it without serving a day behind bars.

Norton City Garage Foreman Jerry Miller talks about the Wise Works program and former participant, now employee Dakota Ramey.

“I’m hoping to move up here and go from part-time to full-time,” Ramey said just after completing the program.

Ramey can hope to follow in the footsteps of people like Katie Slone, who completed Wise Works earlier, has bought her own home and is restoring long-severed relationships with her family.

And Alan Taylor, currently completing hours at the Salvation Army in Wise, hopes to follow in the footsteps of both — continuing to restore family relationships like Slone and moving forward in his work life.

“This has just helped me to get the extra push to want to move forward in my life and want to complete and do something good for myself,” Taylor said while his site supervisor Judy Mullins looked on.

Speaking of supervisors, Slone became one herself at Logisticare — where she worked full-time while also completing her Wise Works hours in lieu of what probably would have been a couple years in jail.

Katie Slone is one of Wise Works’ success stories.

“I’ve met all my early goals,” Slone said during a break from her supervisor job at Logisticare. “I bought a car, I’m a boss at my job and I recently bought a house as well that I’m remodeling.”

As two of the 73% of participants who successfully complete Wise Works, Ramey and Slone have helped save Wise County taxpayer money and Ramey has started a job he hopes can become a career.

Ramey and Slone are happy not to be sitting in jail right now. Jerry Miller is happy to have a solid new employee at Norton, Va.’s street department. And Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp is happy an idea that began out of a need to save taxpayer dollars has become something much more impactful.

They came for the savings

Wise County’s government coffers weren’t flush with cash when Slemp started his first term as Commonwealth’s Attorney in early 2016. The coal industry’s decline had hit the county hard, something J.H. Rivers remembers all too well.

“We’ve lost millions of dollars because of changes in the economy,” said Rivers, a Big Stone Gap native and retired Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy employee who’s served 14 years on the county board of supervisors.

As people rung out 2015 and rung in 2016 on the southeastern fringes of coal country, Slemp walked into a situation with schools closing, teachers being laid off, and “across the board cutting every department.”

But Slemp was the new guy on the block, and the county’s budget was near the bottom of a multi-year revenue decline. After topping $66 million in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, revenues would bottom out at $52.3 million in Slemp’s first full year in office.

They haven’t reached $57 million since, meaning the county’s been operating on about 15 to 20% less annually than it had to work with a decade ago.

“I was told in no uncertain terms we need to cut the jail budget, which was millions and millions of dollars of taxpayer money just to sit people in jail,” Slemp remembered.

It seemed like “an impossible task,” he said, but the alternative was cutting attorney salaries and potentially causing a mass exodus.

“The regional jail is a large expense for the county and that was one way that Chuck approached it,” Rivers said.

Even then, though, Slemp said he had a “philosophical belief that we need to do criminal justice better.” And that included alternatives for some offenders, many of who struggled with addiction.

That addiction problem was exacerbated, Slemp believes, by economic distress.

“I would go knock on doors while running for office and talk to people, and they would always say, we’ve got to do something about substance abuse, we’ve got to do something about jobs, we need to do something about making a lot of the lives of these people better,” Slemp said.

Even in a conservative, law and order culture like Southwest Virginia’s, Slemp said people were coming to a recognition.

“Over time, people realized we have addiction in every single family,” he said.

The crimes “committed only because of addiction,” Slemp said, need to be prosecuted and addressed.

By 2016, though, Wise Countians seemed ready for a different way to address at least some of them.

Part of his willingness to risk launching a program that could have some hiccups or get him labeled soft on crime, Slemp said, came from talking to people.

“They were saying, ‘look, we want a prosecutor not to just put people in prison we want a prosecutor who can and will do creative things to make people’s lives better,'” he said.

Hope and a new opportunity to move past addiction – and to get things done

Slemp didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He took a template a colleague in nearby Russell County had used. In fact, the two counties had worked together with juvenile offenders to clean up the Clinch River in St. Paul.

“It’s a restorative focus, our efforts on trying to not just restore the people involved, but restore the whole community, and the impact of substance abuse,” Slemp said.

That’s led to things like the refurbishment of the community pool in St. Paul, he said — and collaboration between two jurisdictions that both struggle financially in the wake of coal’s decline.

“The town didn’t have money to fix it and there was mud in the bottom of the pool and, you know, folks from Russell County were coming over to work, folks from Wise County were coming over to work, the Commonwealth’s attorney from Russell County was there, I was there.”

Slemp said it wasn’t actually that hard to convince non-profits and local governments to take on free workers — even ones convicted of felonies.

He remembers early on a woman who was homeless, broke and about to lose her child to the foster system because of a drug-related crime she’d committed.

Instead, Mountain Empire Community College put her to work in their library, where she completed her hours before getting a job there.

“She gets to stay at home, her kid never went to foster care, she worked a really cool job and then got a really great job afterward, and she’s not addicted, she’s living her best life,” Slemp said.

“She had the crossroads of, ‘we’re gonna send her and condemn her to a life of a convicted felon … or we’re going to give her an opportunity to help herself.”

The need for help drew people like the Salvation Army’s Mullins and City of Norton’s Jerry Miller.

Wise Works participant Alan Taylor discusses the program’s impact on his life.

“Without their help I couldn’t do what I do,” Mullins said as Taylor worked in another area of the thrift store.

Mullins said she only has about five volunteers, but she’s gotten the most out of a steady stream of Wise Works participants. It seems they’ve gotten a good bit back from her as well.

Taylor said he had withdrawn into himself and stopped communicating with his family by the time he was offered a chance to enter Wise Works.

“I felt like disconnected from everybody,” he said. “Doing this has made me more open.”

Taylor chalks a lot of that up to the influence of Mullins.

“She’s very sweet and kind and loving to everybody that has ever came in here and she treats them like they’re family,” the Coeburn native said. “She’s started treating me like I’m family too.”

Don’t go directly to jail – From DUI to management

Katie Slone had struggled with addiction since she was 15 when she picked up a DUI in February 2019, just after turning 21.

A felony assault on an officer charge accompanied it, but somehow her probation officer — yes, she had a previous conviction — saw something in her.

“She saw a part of me that I really couldn’t see at that time,” Slone said.

It helped that she was honest, and had been trying, not with great success, to get clean through intensive outpatient therapy.

“I owned up to everything I was doing,” said Slone, who was a student at Mountain Empire Community College at the time. “It took a lot of people telling me the hard truth … realizing what I was doing to those people that loved me.”

Instead of two years in the regional jail, Slone accepted the opportunity to complete 750 hours with Wise Works, while keeping her full time job with Logisticare.

Wise Works program director Laura Gardner came into her life, adding to the good influences in her corner. Slone worked the summer and fall of 2020 at the Big Stone Gap Visitor Center, learning some gardening and landscaping skills while continuing to work 40 hours a week.

That left her worn out and the pull of drugs and alcohol overshadowed by busyness and a growing support group. Slone admits that pull had been strong.

“Pills, meth, just about any substance,” she said of her time using, which came after an unstable upbringing that included her own parents’ struggles with addiction.

“Whatever I would get off for a little bit, I would get on something else thinking it was better.”

But influences were coming around her: Kathy, her probation officer; Gardner at Wise Works; Judy Mullins at Salvation Army when the cold weather set in last year.

Katie Slone, front right, spent years in the grip of addiction. Now she manages a team of employees at Logisticare.

“It just felt good because she’s one of them women that would go above and beyond for anybody,” Slone said of Mullins.

Then there was Angela Burke, the drug therapist who finally really took initiative after Slone had bounced from counselor to counselor through the years.

“If I had a problem I could call her and she would talk me down out of my hysterical moments no matter when or where it was,” Slone said of Burke. “I’d never gotten that before out of therapy.”

County supervisor: It’s so much more than savings

Rivers currently chairs the Wise County Board of Supervisors. He said Wise Works has succeeded far beyond his expectations and in multiple ways.

He had a bit of trepidation.

“We were a little concerned about the supervision,” Rivers said. “Whether they would show up to work and become good and productive and for their own self benefit.”

Slemp convinced him by describing a vetting process that reserved the opportunity for the right kind of candidates.

“That sounded very positive for my ears and I was willing to listen to that,” Rivers said.

Slemp dedicated a staff member to making it all work, a position Gardner assumed last year.

“I think it’s been positive for the county, it’s been positive for some of our towns and it’s been very positive for the individuals who’s took advantage of it,” Rivers said.

“When you can turn someone’s life around there’s not much better accomplishments than that.”

Ramey on the rise

It’s early days, but Dakota Ramey is sticking with the program, Gardner said. He recently came to her office to show off his CDL permit.

Dakota Ramey, right, talks with Wise Works Director Laura Gardner at the Norton, Va. city garage. After completing Wise Works service at the garage, Ramey got a job there.

Ramey is one of several Wise Works participants who have graduated into employment with Miller at the garage, and the foreman said it’s a match made in heaven so far.

“We need the extra help,” Miller said. “These people need something to do. You know an idle mind is a dangerous mind, you give them something to do then they can’t get in trouble.

“And then you know you’ve got people like Dakota – come in here, give it their all, and you end up, we end up giving them a job so it worked out great. He had earned a job.”

Miller said being part of the program means a lot to him.

“They know what they’ve done, they learned their lesson, and then they turn everything around, and it all works out for them and us, too.”

Back at his small office in Wise, Slemp said he recently joked with someone, “I went from being the guy that was going to try to put you in prison to now the person who’s on your job reference list.”

He said he’s not sure that happens very often.

“If I leave office tomorrow, the one thing that I will be most proud of is that we didn’t just put people in prison. Let them sit there and rot, and then come right back out with no hope.”

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