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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Brandon Dennison, executive director of Coalfield Development Corp., on Friday, July 1, 2016, in Wayne.

WAYNE - National leaders are taking notice of the work emerging at the grassroots level in southern West Virginia. On Monday, it was announced that Coalfield Development was awarded $1 million in the Communities Thrive Challenge, a $10 million national funding opportunity by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The organization's application is called "Rebuilding Appalachia From the Ground Up," and Unlimited Future Inc. in Huntington was a co-applicant for the challenge, said Brandon Dennison, executive director of Coalfield Development Corporation.

"Because we intentionally work in socio-economically distressed communities with broken, failed markets and institutions, much experimentation is necessary to reconfigure community and economic development interventions to be more effective; think of our enterprises like entrepreneurial laboratories," Dennison said. "Also because of the economic brokenness of the places we serve, direct employment is a key strategy. There simply aren't many jobs available to train people for, certainly not sustainable jobs, and so we must simultaneously create new markets and the trained workforce to employ in those markets."

The funding will be used to strengthen the two organizations' programs and to help 100 other communities around the Tri-State region replicate the 33-3-6 model that Coalfield has developed. That model features for participants 33 hours of paid labor, six hours of higher education class time, and three hours of life skills mentorship per week. The model has proven successful as 100 percent of Coalfield crew members have found jobs upon graduation.

"The main hook of our job training programs is that the work is paid, putting real wages in people's pockets," Dennison said. "I liked the name 'Communities Thrive' because so much of the time we are just trying to survive and get by, but we want to create conditions not to just survive, but to thrive and reach our full potential as a community. We are honored to be chosen for the Communities Thrive Challenge and look forward to making our work even stronger and broader through this experience."

Gail Patton, executive director of Unlimited Future Inc., says the two organizations began working together in 2013 to develop social enterprises that provide workforce training and jobs for unemployed people while making a positive impact on the toughest social issues of our day.

"Our organizations combined have directly contributed to the creation of more than 180 new businesses that employ over 425 people," Patton said. "We serve 23 percent racial minorities in places with 5 percent to 7 percent minority total populations. The Communities Thrive Challenge will give us the chance to learn from other innovative companies all across the nation and to teach other communities how to replicate our model."

"By working together to invest in local solutions, we can build an America where all people can earn enough to support their families, achieve financial security and provide their children with greater opportunity," said Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation.

Ten $1 million grants were awarded to grantees from nine states and Puerto Rico, officials said.

"These organizations are creating pathways to opportunity from the ground up," said Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. "We've already learned a lot from these local leaders and hope that others around the country will find useful lessons in these community-driven approaches."

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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