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Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year: Romelia Hodges

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Romelia Hodges saw too many people sitting on their hands.

COVID-19 tore through North Central West Virginia’s Black Baptist church community in late March. People were dying and dozens were infected. Churchgoers were turned away from hospitals and denied tests. People were left fending for themselves.

“The feeling was one of sheer panic, confusion and pandemonium,” Hodges said. “Like being underwater and trying to swim up for air and never quite reaching the top.”

The institutions designed to protect the most vulnerable communities during crisis did not answer the call.

“The truth is health officials and government officials ignored our pleas for help,” Hodges said. “We were invisible.”

Hodges stepped up, calling attention to her community’s plight. For her response to the church outbreak and continued activism for the health of minority communities in West Virginia, Hodges is the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year.

The COVID-19 nightmare began unfolding on the morning of March 15, when dozens of people gathered at Friendship Baptist to mark the Rev. Laverna Horton’s sixth anniversary at the church in Everettville, near the Monongalia-Marion County line. Later that day, the federal Centers for Disease Control advised against gatherings of 50 or more. The following day, Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in West Virginia.

As the virus and fear spread, Hodges went to work, quickly organizing a small team to set up contact tracing and taking calls from frightened people, directing them to care and resources.

All the while, Hodges was fighting the virus inside her home. She’d attended the church event with her daughter Dazzelyn, 10. Her entire family was infected. The virus nearly killed her husband.

Nonetheless, Hodges chose to continue caring for her community.

“I don’t know many people that would have made that decision,” said Tiffany Samuels, who along with Hodges helped organize the response to the church outbreak.

State and federal help came nearly three weeks after the event. By then, the virus had exacted a deadly toll.

“People who I have admired my entire life and who were influential in my upbringing were dying around me,” Hodges said. “My community depended on me. They put their trust in me to be the voice of reason and the path of hope. I carried a tremendous burden. There was never a task in my life more important.”

A Fairmont native, Hodges, 45, is an alumna of Fairmont Senior High School and Fairmont State University. She holds a master’s degree in educational technology from Concordia University Irvine. She works as a professional speaker. In the education field, she helps community schools with recruiting, development, logistics, facilitating, training, execution and organizing.

Some of her most important work came two years before the church outbreak, when Hodges built a community Facebook page for Black residents.

When crisis came knocking, Hodges put everything she’d learned to work.

“I had to harness all the skills I acquired over the years and utilize them in a field for a virus I knew very little about … I began to glean every article I could find, and not just news articles, but scholarly articles,” Hodges said. “Then I began to share this information with my community in a way that they could understand and digest. I learned how to conduct contact tracing and how to effectively communicate this information to the public.”

Hodges’ fight has not stopped.

On May 1, Justice announced the creation of a minority health task…

Read More: Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year: Romelia Hodges

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