Former lobbyist examines Virginia's 'extremes'

Retirement brought an unsettling feeling to August “Augie” Wallmeyer. After years of working long hours as an energy lobbyist, it felt strange not to have every hour of the day planned. 

So Wallmeyer, a board member of the Virginia Catholic Conference, made a personal resolution. “Take this time that you now have and do something useful,” he told himself. 

He looked at some of the areas of Virginia where he had enjoyed fishing and camping, and “something useful” came in the form of a book, The Extremes of Virginia. Published last summer, the book is an in-depth look at the economic and social disparity that exists in the Southwest, Southside and Eastern Shore regions of the state. The “extremes” are some of the most beautiful areas of the commonwealth, but remain “unknown to many, separated by distance, culture and economics, and unequal in opportunity and education,” Wallmeyer writes in the book. 

Wallmeyer lays out his case in 127 pages: The population, which accounts for about 10 percent of Virginians, is older and poorer. The poverty rate in these areas is 67 percent higher on average than the rest of the state. Those who are employed earn far less than their peers in other areas. Drug abuse, mainly in the form of opioids and methamphetamine, is rampant — with overdoses 56 percent higher than the state as a whole. Suicide rates in some areas are double or triple that of the state. 

“Bluntly stated, there is a pervasive sense of pessimism, hopelessness and doom in the extremes,” writes Wallmeyer, who worked as a news reporter and speechwriter before his time as a lobbyist.  

 “While most love the rural character, lifestyle and charms of the extremes areas and want to preserve them, they would also like to have access to better education, healthcare, jobs and more opportunity. They do not want to be treated, in the words of Ron Wolff on the Eastern Shore, ‘as second class citizens.’ They want parity with the rest of Virginia.”

That gets to the heart of why Wallmeyer wrote the book: he hopes that Virginia lawmakers will take note and look for long-term solutions to end systemic problems.  He believes that most do not understand the depth of the problems facing residents of the “extremes.”

For starters, he suggests investing in a meth offender registry that would prevent past producers from buying one of the necessary ingredients to make the drug, and providing more long-term drug rehab facilities. In some areas, 93 percent of meth users relapse; this is because it can take a year and a half to wean oneself off the dependency, while most facilities only accept patients for six to 12 weeks. 

extremes of virginiaBut the problems require much greater expertise than one lobbyist can provide, Wallmeyer said. He suggests hiring a nonprofit or global consulting firm to provide a fresh look. The alternative, he says, is “complacency and acceptance; both are unacceptable. It’s time to think differently and think bigger. If independent foundations can attempt to eradicate polio and AIDS worldwide, surely Virginia can confront its persistent problems and make progress.”

For the average reader not in a position to make those kinds of decisions, there are still some steps that can be taken. Wallmeyer suggests donating to or volunteering for The Health Wagon, a mobile clinic founded by a Catholic nun in 1980 at the request of the late Richmond Bishop Walter F. Sullivan. Wallmeyer, a parishioner at St. Bridget Church in Richmond, lobbies for the organization on a volunteer basis. 

He also suggests volunteering for a weekend at a Remote Area Medical Clinic. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and dentists descend on various parts of Virginia a few times a year to assist patients who otherwise might not have access to medical care; the event also needs volunteers to help direct the crowds. 

Still, he recognizes that there are no easy solutions for systemic issues. 

 “Some of these problems have been in place for 300 years,” Wallmeyer said. “I don’t expect in my lifetime to see any huge, huge change. What I do hope to see is the beginning of change.”

Find out more

Go to extremesofvirgina.com or email extremesofvirginia@gmail.com. To learn more about The Health Wagon go to thehealthwagon.org; to find out about volunteering at a Remote Area Medical Clinic, go to ramusa.org/Virginia

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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