“That’s Progress”

February 7, 2019  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Dottie Fromal came to Nelsonville two years ago “to visit some friends,” then never left. “Somehow Nelsonville sucked me in,” she says, which isn’t something you normally hear about a struggling coal town in Appalachian Ohio. “I just started doing things here, and I guess I didn’t stop,” she says, trying to explain. “You don’t always know what the right path is, but the path is always right, you know?”

Dottie didn’t come to Nelsonville to do anything heroic, but when she encountered kids here who were struggling, it was a kind of struggle she recognized. “My background is similar to lots of these kids,” she says, explaining that she was born to a 14-year old mother, and was only able to escape a life of poverty in her native Philadelphia because, “someone gave me five dollars and put me on a train to a college fair.” Dottie’s “path” started with that train ride, but then took her to college on a scholarship, to a career in New York City, to volunteering in Tanzania, and ultimately to running the Hive, an afterschool drop-in center occupying an old storefront on the public square in Nelsonville.

The front window of The Hive located in Nelsonville, Ohio.

The Hive is a bright, clean, safe space for kids to be in the afternoons and evenings—in a town where positive home environments are few and far between. It has books and toys and computers—as well as a shower and a washing machine, for the many kids who don’t have running water at home because their utilities have been shut off. But, more than anything, it’s a place for kids to feel seen and connected, and to have a break from the relentless challenges they face every day. Most of the kids she encounters in Nelsonville “lead pretty complicated lives,” Dottie says. Many of their parents struggle with addiction, unemployment, poverty, isolation, and despair. “These kids just need as many people looking after them as possible,” Dottie explains.

While leaders across America are searching for new techniques and technologies to reconnect people to each other and to their communities, Dottie’s work suggests that the starting point might be a lot simpler than we think. “Before I moved into my apartment here, I used to walk to downtown from my friend’s house, which is fifteen minutes away—twenty if I’m slow. But after a while I had to budget an hour at least, because as I walked by all these houses, people would call out to me, ‘Hey Dottie! Let me tell you about my cat!’” To her, this was evidence of the devastating loneliness many people in Nelsonville—and towns like it all across America—are experiencing. “Some of these people don’t have anyone to talk to all day long,” she laments. “But I find that if you make a little bit of eye contact, people will spill their life stories,” she adds, which opens up the pathway to connection, and ultimately to hope.

One of the things Dottie is most proud of is the community dinners she’s started in town. Along with a group of friends and volunteers, she’s been hosting them every Thursday since January, “and we’ve only missed two,” she says, with a hint of pride. It started off as a way for her to help feed the kids from the Hive, many of whom don’t have active caregivers or enough food at home. But soon parents and relatives started coming, then folks from the wider community. Sometimes a local pastor or a member of the city council will come, too, and last week, the DNC ran a voter registration drive. “We’ve had up to 125 people,” Dottie says. And they don’t just come for the food—they come to connect. “It always amazes me how desperate people are to talk,” she says.

The dinners take place in the town park, under a pavilion sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Since Dottie has been using the pavilion, the club has committed to putting a new roof on it, and repairing the fence around the park, which backs up to a busy street. When I ask her where the funds come from for the dinners, Dottie laughs and says, “mostly out of my pocket.” But some community organizations including the Nelsonville Fire Department have been sponsors. “Also, when I’m shopping on Thursdays and people see me in the Kroger with a cart full of food, they know it’s for the community dinner. I’ve had strangers come up and give me twenty, forty, even fifty dollars,” she adds.

Recently a friend contacted Dottie on Facebook, asking how she could start a similar kind of initiative in her town. “I told her, ‘well, you just cook something, and invite your neighbors,’” she recounts, without the slightest hint of condescension. But even just inviting the neighbors can be tricky in a place like Nelsonville. “There are lot of folks around here who don’t have electricity—and definitely no internet. So they’re not on Facebook hearing about programs and community events,” she explains.

Dottie’s solution? Knocking doors. “‘Come to our community dinner,’ I tell people. And they usually don’t, but just because I’m standing on their doorstep, suddenly they’re talking. Then maybe we see each other in a store, and we make eye contact when we didn’t before. And then they’re waving to me from across the street as I walk by and I think to myself, ‘okay, that’s progress.’”

Progress is a precious commodity in towns like Nelsonville, which have been dependent for over a century on extractive industries and have been locked in a relentless boom/bust cycle for generations. And yet, not everyone sees Dottie’s work as progress. As she and her friend Lori walked me around town, we crossed the public square toward a patch of grass where the Hive kids have installed a community bulletin board. It has a roof and two little plastic doors to protect the notices from rain and occupies about 2 square feet at the edge of a dingy-looking parking lot. A bright green handwritten sign takes up about a quarter of the board: “FREE Community Dinner 6:30 Thursday!” 

“That guy won’t mow the grass around our bulletin board because we didn’t get permission from the City Council to put it up,” Dottie says quietly, with a note of tired frustration in her voice. She nods inconspicuously toward a man pushing a lawnmower across the grass. Dottie says she prefers the method of asking forgiveness, rather than permission, when it comes to getting things done in Nelsonville. But in this case forgiveness has been slow in coming. Dottie feels like this kind of “under the surface” resistance comes from the fact that, even after living here for two years, she’s still seen as an outsider. And the work she does reaching out to the community’s most needy members isn’t always welcome.

“There are a lot of old timers who grew up in this town and remember it in better economic times,” Dottie explains. “They remember a neighborhood feel, when everyone went to church. I’m sure it was beautiful,” she adds, “but it didn’t stay. And they don’t like the fact that we’re attracting poor folks to the square. They seem to blame the decline of Nelsonville on the poor,” many of whom, Dottie explains, haven’t had full-time employment in two generations. “Because of the lack of a tax base,” she adds, “everybody points fingers and gets mean.” Ironically, Dottie is working to rebuild exactly the sort of community Nelsonville’s older citizens so lament the loss of: stronger neighborhoods, protected kids, people caring about people.

Dottie and Lori cross the road over to the bulletin board and start pulling up the foot-high grass surrounding it. “You girls can just pile those up right there and I’ll haul them away,” the groundskeeper says, brightly. “Really? Great!” Dottie replies, genuinely surprised—and delighted. Dottie and Lori—not girls, but women in their 40s—pull up the last few weeds from under the sign, rearrange the mulch, and walk away, offering a sincere thank-you to the man behind the mower.

If there is a lesson in the work Dottie Fromal is doing in Nelsonville, Ohio, it may be simply this: When we meet each other—eye to eye, face to face, on the doorstep, over a paper-plate dinner, or on the lawn in the public square, it’s hard for loneliness and despair to triumph and it’s difficult for the walls of tribalism to hold. Human decency takes over, connection happens, and, as Dottie says, “that’s progress.”