July 24, 2017|By J.D. Belcher and Whitney Flanagan| Community Development

Whitney: Interestingly enough, we discovered that we both got our start in video production by making short commercials for car dealerships. What inspired you to follow a career in video?

J.D.: It was an interesting path. I dropped out of college, then dropped out of vocational school just one month shy of becoming an electrician to make a living at a local coal mine, first hauling coal for two years, and then as a heavy equipment operator for seven, before I decided to try my very first video. I just started learning all I could about motion graphics and got hooked on learning about every aspect of the art of video production. I learned how to properly frame an image, and only figured out what white balance was a year after I started (so a lot of the first projects I did were all very blue when I was outside and I never knew why!).

7 24 dumper c wikimediaJ.D. drove heavy machinery like this before pursuing a career in videography. Photo by Wikimedia.

It involved a lot of trial and error—mostly error—but eventually I applied for a position making commercials for a local car dealer. I was still working 60 hours a week in the coal business, so at first I only worked on Sundays—my only day off. That eventually led to a full-time video production position at the dealership, which led me to shoot my first wedding. The next year I booked six weddings, and that turned into 22 the next year. Eventually I was able to turn my passion into my full-time job and start my two companies—Unscripted Memories for wedding videography and JJN Multimedia for commercial work.

My career path has also allowed me pursue my passion for telling stories from McDowell County. My desire to put a positive spin on the community led me to create the series “Motivate McDowell.” 

Whitney: Your “Motivate McDowell” series was really powerful. Can you share a common misconception about McDowell County that you help debunk through your video work?

J.D.: Unfortunately, negative stories often get more attention in the news media, and there have been several irresponsible pieces that really focused on those aspects of McDowell County. I wanted to use my experience and skills to show a version of McDowell more people should understand. This was done mainly for the citizens, to show them some of the positive things going on and motivate them to get involved. 

Whitney: We recently worked with you to create a video for our Healthy Food Distribution Initiative, a partnership with CSX to improve access to healthy foods for youth in West Virginia, which recently purchased two culinary freeze dryers for the county vocational school. How did you apply your skills to a story so unique and what did you learn?

J.D.: Well first of all, I had to Google “flash freezing units” as soon as I got off the phone when I first got the call about making this video! That’s how I found out enough to know that I wanted to share the story so that people could know more about this project. I learned that flash freezing has more potential than the obvious outcome of sucking the water out of food to freeze dry it—it actually has the potential to create real economic impact. 

7 24 Freeze Dryers07 24 Sasha Hale0
Student Sasha Hale prepares bananas to go into the flash freezing units. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

The flash freezing units are now operated by the Pro Start program, which is a culinary education class taught by Ms. Victoria Belcher. Right now they are still in the early stages of creating different recipes, figuring out what foods work the best, and what tastes the best when freeze dried. If packaged correctly, this process can produce healthy, nutritious packaged food with a 25-year shelf life. So it could provide easier access to healthy foods in communities where it isn’t always readily available, and beyond that it could potentially provide a partnership with community farmers to increase the production of local food. So I think this project is perfect for a place like McDowell County where new economic ideas are needed.

7 24 Cleaning UpSummer Robinette (left) and Victoria Belcher (center) working on flash freezing techniques. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

: What inspired you the most while working on the Connecting Food and Families in West Virginia video?

J.D.: Hands down, the students are what inspired me most. The students I have met working on various projects in McDowell County are original, efficient and have goals—no matter how they are portrayed in the media or pushed aside by some folks. The youth of McDowell County continue to inspire me and make me even more excited for the potential future of the county.

7 24 Summer Robinette0Summer Robinette. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

Whitney: What is something will you always remember about this project?

J.D.: I will always remember how adaptable Ms. Belcher was to learning about the process of flash freezing, and how she has excelled at making the most of this new opportunity. She is a community leader that loves children more than anything and wants to do what she can to provide them with a better future. She dove right into figuring things out—establishing protocols and creating this program to really educate the students. That’s what McDowell County is all about—from the youth to the local leaders, they all just dive right in and they just will not take “no” for an answer.

7 24 Victoria Belcher0Victoria Belcher. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

Whitney: How would you say that The Conservation Fund’s work in McDowell County is redefining what people understand to be traditional conservation?

J.D.: This work redefines what you would think of as traditional conservation by getting the community involved with a project that has the potential to create a cycle of positive change. If we can get our entire community—especially the local farmers—involved and really excited about its potential, it could be an incentive for more product to be grown, more ideas to be shared and more jobs to be created. Lack of community involvement is a big reason why some things fail in McDowell County and communities like this across the United States. You can't just march in and say “oh I'm going to save this place by doing this project,” and then not involve residents or ask for their opinion. You have to work with the community, get them excited and get them to where they are actually able to operate it themselves and create a sustainable environment for change. That’s what The Conservation Fund is doing with this project. 

The Conservation Fund and CSX Connecting Food and Families in West Virginia