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Huntington church continues tradition of feeding community

HUNTINGTON — For David, a homeless man in Huntington, being able to get a dinner and some companionship on Christmas Day is a blessing he thought he may not get.

“People just need help sometimes,” he said. “If not for this wonderful Christmas dinner and fellowship here, I would most likely be alone on Christmas with nothing to eat.”

David was just one of hundreds of people who came to First Presbyterian Church in the 1000 block of 5th Avenue in Huntington for its annual Christmas Day Community Dinner in the newly renovated Friendship Hall.

On Wednesday, 715 hot meals went out to groups and individuals and another 150 to 200 people dined inside the church.

“We had more people served overall this year than last, but it goes up and down each year,” said Rus Livingood, head cook, dinner organizer and a deacon at the church. “This year the number spiked up because this is the first year that Second Presbyterian Church has asked us to give them 200 meals for them to serve. Folks at the Lifehouse, an addiction recovery facility in Huntington, were going there to dine after church services.”

Inside of the church was aglow with Christmas cheer as families volunteered and children of the church served, and some hot meals were also delivered to those in need at facilities around the city.

The annual holiday tradition at the church started in 1993, according to Livingood.

It was introduced by Elder Ed Copeland, a Huntington City Mission board member who observed the need for a Christmas Day meal to give the City Mission employees a day off.

“It was a way to take one afternoon off the shoulder of the Huntington City Mission, which does this type of work 365 days a year, including breakfast this morning,” Livingood said Wednesday. “To be able to help that wonderful organization take a breath is one part, and the other part is that people are eating here, taking a to-go container and this may be their meal for the day, as well as the camaraderie of eating Christmas dinner with others instead of maybe being alone.”

Livingood says what is most important is trying to help those in need get closer to God.

“If it gets anyone’s relationship closer to God, including those getting served or those doing the serving, then it makes it all worth it,” he said.

Livingood began working with his team of 15 to 20 volunteers on food preparation three days in advance. More volunteers came in to help on Christmas Day.

“The volunteers are rock stars,” he said. “They are giving up their day to come and do this for others. The majority of them come from our church congregation, but there are people that reach out to us every year and ask if there is any way that they can help.”

Livingood said one couple that owns a local business brought 100 prepared desserts to go with the menu that also included ham, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, rolls and drinks.

“They helped us prepare meals as well,” he said. “We had another couple that doesn’t go to church here that came last year and said they wanted to help again this year. We had so many helping deliver meals, so many serving here, so many in the kitchen, and others have donated or helped fund the dinner. They have told me that rather than the commercial holiday stuff, they want to do what Christmas is all about, which is giving back to others.”

For many families, the annual dinner has become part of their Christmas Day tradition.

According to Sheryl Saul, church member and volunteer, “It’s a wonderful experience because it teaches our kids that it is not about us. It is not about presents. It’s about showing Jesus’ love for others and God’s gift to us.”

First Steps celebrates Christmas at recovery center

HUNTINGTON — “Everyone deserves a Christmas.”

First Steps Director Terry Collison said that is the main reason First Steps Wellness and Recovery Center, located at 730 7th Ave. in Huntington, has opened its doors on Christmas Day for the past five years.

“Most of the folks coming here on Christmas Day are ones that are not staying at the City Mission and are basically homeless and living on the streets with nowhere to go,” Collison said. “We also have a few that are marginally housed that come as well, but for the most part these are people living outside with no place to go on Christmas Day.”

The recovery center is normally open on weekdays only as a laid-back, drop-in community center for the homeless.

“We opened at 8 a.m. (Wednesday) and then at 8:30 we had a Christmas service and violin music led by Christ Presbyterian Church,” Collison said. “After the service, we served breakfast. Christ Presbyterian Church provided breakfast casseroles. We also served biscuits and gravy, fried apples, bread pudding, orange juice, milk, coffee, snacks and more.”

Collison said First Presbyterian Church provided wonderful trays of food for them to serve at lunch, and in the afternoon there were desserts and drinks, as well as brown-bag meals for dinner.

“I found out there is nobody serving food after 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, so we decided to make these brown-bag meals for them to take with them before we close at 4 p.m.,” she said.

All day Wednesday, First Steps was Christmas central for many in the homeless community. Organizers and volunteers offered a fun and full day of fellowship that also included the movie “A Christmas Story,” Christmas karaoke caroling, games and a place where those dropping in could connect with family and friends online using the center’s computers.

Small crowds gathered throughout the building watching movies, playing chess and cards, and enjoying a hot meal as well as sharing in the laughter and the spirit of the holiday. By early afternoon more than 70 people had dropped in, with more on the way.

“We usually see around 80 to 100 or more people on Christmas Day,” Collison said.

Volunteers such as Victoria Salyers and her husband, Kevin, were inside, serving food and welcoming folks in off the street.

“My husband and I want to give back to the community that has helped us so much,” Salyers said. “We were both in recovery and have been clean and sober for over a year, and we are very proud of that accomplishment.”

Salyers said if not for places like First Steps, her and her husband’s road to recovery would have been far more difficult.

“We came here on Christmas Day when we first got clean,” she said. “During that time we had no electric, no water and no food. We came here to eat and it made our Christmas, so now we want to give back to a place we felt like helped us so much in our time of need.”

Salyers said she and her husband recently had a baby boy.

“Brendan is 2 months old and has been such a blessing to us,” she said.

Salyers said she graduated from junior college in Huntington in December and is planning to attend Marshall University in January.

“I am planning to major in social work,” she said. “My advice to those in the cycle of addiction or struggling in recovery is to never give up hope. As many times as you try, there is always that last time, and believe it is possible to get clean and sober.”

Run under the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless umbrella, First Steps offers resources for the homeless, formerly homeless, those in recovery or those seeking peer support.

The facility has a computer lab, provides activities, wellness and recovery classes and facilitates peer support groups.

“The cool thing about First Steps is that we provide no service that they have to have, so they are here because they want to be,” Collison said. “In the busyness of being homeless and looking for services and even if they are trying hard, it is difficult to find a place to come off the streets during the day. So we can be that place.”

Collison said they also try to be a place to support those who are trying to get their lives back on track.

“They have to have someone to believe in them again if they are going to make better choices,” she said. “We have all of this stuff to get them in the door and then love on them, because that is what we do.”

Former WV trooper acquitted after roadside beating of teenager

CHARLESTON — A federal judge on Monday acquitted a former West Virginia State Police trooper who was accused of using excessive force during the roadside beating of a teenager in Martinsburg.

The November 2018 altercation sparked condemnation from the governor and national news media attention upon release of dashboard camera footage of the beating, and a civil lawsuit against two troopers and two sheriff’s deputies who played a role.

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh, however, acquitted former trooper Michael Kennedy of the federal indictment filed against him, ruling that federal prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof against Kennedy.

“A slow and methodical review of the dash camera footage and the testimony clearly show during each of the four uses of force, every action by (the teenager) caused a reaction by (Kennedy),” Groh wrote in her verdict.

The incident began when the suspect struck a Berkeley County sheriff’s deputy’s cruiser and fled from multiple officers, leading them on a high-speed chase ending in a crash into a transformer, discharging flashes of a brilliant, blue light.

Kennedy and Trooper Derek Walker, along with Deputies Austin Ennis and Chris Merson, removed the 16-year-old male from the car through the window.

Four separate uses of force ensued: the four officers punching and kicking the suspect while trying to handcuff him; Kennedy punching him in the back eight times; Kennedy picking him up after the beating and tossing the limp, handcuffed juvenile to the ground; and Kennedy slapping his face twice.

In each use of force, Groh ruled, Kennedy was simply responding to resistance or aggression the suspect exhibited. For instance, she said, because the suspect resisted officers’ efforts to handcuff him and did not respond to verbal commands, the strikes were a reasonable means to gain control. While the suspect did not strike the troopers, Groh noted, he was “tensing up” and attempting to stand up.

While the “body toss” — as State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill described it to West Virginia MetroNews — “caused pause” with Groh, she found prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force rose to an excessive level.

As for the two face slaps, Groh noted that no other officer felt compelled to step in, and that Kennedy used his “left, nondominant hand” for the slaps.

“He was not using force to inflict injury,” she wrote. “(Kennedy) was trying to get (the suspect) to snap out of it and comply with his verbal commands.”

Groh also ruled that prosecutors failed to prove the teenager sustained any bodily injury. While he was cut and bruised, she cited witness statements concluding that they came from the crash, not from the officers.

The teenager, identified only by his initials, did not testify at the October hearing, which proved to be a shortcoming in providing that he felt pain during and after the incident. However, as Groh wrote, “pain experienced during proper pain compliance strikes does not make the Defendant guilty of a felony offense.”

The case has ping-ponged forward since Gov. Jim Justice first brought public attention to it. The four officers were fired in January, although the two deputies were later reinstated.

A civil lawsuit against the four of them is still to be adjudicated.

Testimony presented at trial showed that Kennedy and Walker did not initially report the use of force, as policy requires. They did so only after a Berkeley County sheriff’s investigator watched the dash cam footage and notified the department. Kennedy was allowed to view the footage before offering a statement, which did not mention the slaps.

Both Kennedy and Walker have filed wrongful-termination grievances against the State Police.

A Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation found that a secretive internal review board cleared multiple uses of force against Walker just three weeks before the beating of the teenager.

Likewise, the investigation identified a steady practice of the State Police internally clearing its troopers’ uses of force while taxpayers pay the legal bills when subsequent, related lawsuits roll in.

The prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.

Groh adjudicated the case via bench trial after both parties determined widespread publicity would make it difficult to impanel an impartial jury.

In her ruling, Groh said Kennedy was deprived of his right to trial by jury due to “inappropriate pretrial publicity.” While she said she recognized a public interest in viewing video evidence of alleged officer misconduct, this cannot supersede an officer’s due-process rights when accused.

Groh accused Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Catie Delligatti of improperly releasing the footage after Kennedy was indicted and describing the content to reporters.

Delligatti said in a written statement she released the dash cam footage after receiving a Freedom of Information Act request.

“I released the dash cam video pursuant to a FOIA request after the U.S. Attorney confirmed with me via email that their investigation was complete, and specifically that he was not requesting that I withhold the video,” Delligatti wrote in an emailed statement. “As there was no longer an ongoing investigation, and no order from the Court prohibiting disclosure, I had no legal basis to conceal public record from public view. It appears the Court would have preferred that the state conceal the public record from public view in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Delligatti also pointed out that the governor and other officials had commented on the video and she only described who was who in the video. She didn’t mention him by name, but Cahill also spoke about the incident on West Virginia MetroNews.

B. Craig Manford, an attorney for Kennedy, praised the trial for being fair and meticulous.

“Kennedy was overjoyed and we are grateful that he was able to receive a fair trial. He has had many sleepless nights over these events and is greatly relieved,” Manford wrote in an emailed statement. “He can move forward with his life that has been on hold for so long and can again concentrate on his family. He also lost his career with the West Virginia State Police and can now focus on building a new career with a clean record.”

Photos by Kenny Kemp/HD Media  

Mary Kay Bond, former executive director of Read Aloud West Virginia, picks out books for a child at a June event at George C. Weimer Elementary School in Charleston. Bond stepped down from her role with the program earlier this month.