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KISRA – Changing Behaviors, Changing Lives, Changing Futures for West Virginia Families

Photo of the interior of a greenhouse, with several rows of plants.

By Darlene Tart, Special Initiatives Coordinator, ACF Region III

You had to be there. Regional Administrator Essey Workie, Emergency Preparedness Specialist Bill Evans and I were. Greeted and welcomed by CEO Dr. Michelle Foster and COO Carl Chadband, we got the full “KISRA experience!”

Nestled in the quiet community of Dunbar, West Virginia, is the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action, Inc (KISRA), an agency started by Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in 1993.

The first thing we saw was a greenhouse of vegetables and fruits. We could tell this program was different…

I first got to know about KISRA and its fatherhood program as an Office of Family Assistance grantee in my region; however, I had never visited its facility on my trips to West Virginia. Since our team was “in the neighborhood” on other business, I thought this would be a great opportunity to make introductions and to talk about the other ACF Initiative-related work KISRA does. But I wasn’t ready for the farm and greenhouse; after all – who has such in the city AND as a part of its program?

We were a little overwhelmed and impressed by KISRA’s “farm-to-table” program that produces fresh, organic produce while providing jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship and a healthier lifestyle. After all - strong communities consist of healthy people who have sustainable wages, and KISRA addresses both.

Even more inspiring is KISRA’s use of technology. The agency is in the process of converting its greenhouse to a hydroponic system, which will allow the program to grow the plants in mineralized water instead of in soil. This method of farming is good for the environment since no nutrition pollution is released into the environment. The water stays in the system and can be reused - thus, a lower water requirement. There are numerous other advantages. This model can be replicated in rural AND urban communities! Think of the implications!

KISRA is dedicated to creating strong families and communities through programs that educate and empower. A faith-motivated initiative and Office of Family Assistance grantee, KISRA’s core focuses are education, employment, economic empowerment and behavioral health:

  • Education programs help pre-school through teenage kids achieve academic success in an environment that “encourages a lifetime love for learning.”
  • Employment programs help the community gain employment and move toward economic self-sufficiency.
  • Economic empowerment programs help participants move toward self sufficiency and sustainability.
  • Behavioral health programs help mentally ill citizens and others seeking healthcare and family planning options. The mentally ill receive social and emotional support; in addition, the community clinic provides families with quality care, regardless of their ability to pay.

Carl Chadband believes that being "hands on" is key to KISRA’s success for strengthening families and communities (when we visited, the staff were calling him “Farmer Carl” because he was out working in the greenhouse).  “We believe that we can heal communities by working with children and their families,” he said. Most of KISRA’s staff are from the community or have been KISRA clients.

Dr. Michelle Foster, a 2012 recipient of the White House “Champion of Change” Award has a passion for the work she does. “We started out in the basement of the church in classrooms used for Sunday School. We started an after-school program.  Our ultimate aim is to make life better for children, our heritage. We believe that to do this we have to invest in resources in them and their parents, and help them to remove barriers that impede self-sufficiency. The small investments that we make now save our state much more and will continue to do so in the future,” she said. And from there it grew. KISRA now provides services in 20 counties in West Virginia.

We saw smiling staff. We saw a thriving community. But best of all, we saw happy children. You had to be there…

Visit the KISRA website at for more information.

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