Logo for the 2022 Rural Summit. Courtesy of United Way.

Ask Travis Staton about the results of the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s annual Rural Summit and he can point to programs like Ignite, which helps prepare tomorrow’s workforce and now reaches 30,000 students in more than 100 schools across 19 school systems.  

Travis Staton. Courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

But it’s not a question the agency’s president and CEO can completely answer. That’s because the summit – which brings together hundreds of the region’s leaders, practitioners, educators and community members – has led to a number of intangible results. So Staton has no way of knowing how many introductions have been made, how many relationships formed or areas of cooperation, sharing, collaboration and partnership have manifested.  

That networking will continue Thursday and Friday, when the 2022 Rural Summit will be held at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. 

Between 300 and 350 are expected to attend this year’s event, which will again be held in person. It was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The summit was launched in 2013, when local leaders realized there wasn’t a single event that brought business leaders, local officials, school superintendents, those involved in health care and nonprofit leaders together under one roof. 

Those participating work together to develop strategies that can be used locally and in any rural community, Staton said. 

The gathering allows all sectors to “really work together on ways to learn to advance and enhance and continue to grow and prosper in Southwest Virginia,” said Staton, who added that the summit requires about six months of planning. 

Thursday will give those attending the opportunity to learn from decision-makers, industry specialists and stakeholders in the region through discussion about barriers to a path forward for Southwest Virginia. During the first session, the Richmond Federal Reserve will provide a data presentation on how rural communities compare with the state on certain indicators in education, health, workforce and economics. 

Christina Meredith. Courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virgiia.

The keynote speaker will be Christina Meredith, author of “Cindergirl: My Journey Out of the Ashes to a Life of Hope,” an Army officer, trauma survivor, 2013 Ms. California winner and child advocate. She will speak about her experiences and the critical role that educators played in saving her life.  

Meredith replaces John Quiñones, anchor of the TV show “What Would You Do?” He pulled out this week due to a scheduling conflict. 

Friday offers 32 workshops focused on community best practices and strategies in education, health, labor and economic development, with a special emphasis on uplifting local educators.  

The keynote speaker Friday will be Hamish Brewer, “the tattooed skateboarding principal,” who will speak on creating and fostering meaningful relationships. Originally from New Zealand, Brewer earned his first degree from the University of Auckland. Brewer, who has been named Nationally Distinguished Principal of the Year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Northern Virginian of the Year by Northern Virginia magazine, is currently a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.

Hamish Brewer. Courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

The subjects at the summit include teacher-child interactions, how to promote resilience in children, and developmentally appropriate practices to implement in early childhood in both school- and organization/agency-based settings. Other workshops will focus on youth success and workforce development. Opportunities for self-care for providers and practitioners will also be available. 

Staton said he is particularly excited about the involvement and participation of Virginia First Lady Suzanne Youngkin and members of the governor’s cabinet. 

Representatives of the governor’s cabinet and local education leaders will participate in a session Friday morning about how lab schools will affect rural Virginia. In the afternoon, they will be involved in a session on addressing learning losses. 

Suzanne Youngkin, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel and Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera will host a listening session on mental health at 2:15 p.m. Friday. 

“We’re excited to have several members of the cabinet and the first lady, who are truly interested in the well-being of our region, coming and wanting to listen and learn as much as possible,” Staton said. “We are thrilled to have them, and I think there’s going to be a lot of good things come out of this.” 

You can register for the summit until Wednesday at https://theruralsummit.org/.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...