by Gail Marsh
Asst. city editor
IRELAND -- Keith Barbo, who works in materials management, was selected January's employee of the month at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital in Weston.
That in itself is an accomplishment, but there's a lot more to the story.
Keith and his wife, Lee, came to West Virginia by way of Natchitoches, La., the city, believe it or not, where the movie "Steel Magnolias," was filmed. They have three children, Amanda, 17, Kyle, 13 and Austin, 8.
In Natchitoches, Keith worked for Trus Joist Macmillan for years, until there was a downturn in the wood industry. He was able to keep his job by transferring to the Buckhannon plant in 1994.
Then a second restructuring helped to change his life direction. Keith decided to take an early retirement. They liked the area and decided to stay in West Virginia and bought a house in Ireland. Keith quickly learned about the tight job market.
"Until I moved to this area, I had never been considered over-qualified for any job. It hasn't been easy. The kids had never known me without a job," Keith said.
While Keith was unemployed, he more or less became "Mr. Mom" while Lee worked. It was then that Keith decided to go back to school, and he eventually found a job that would accommodate his class work, though it paid considerably less than his former work.
At the same time, Lee decided she was needed more at home than at work, and now she's also become a student.
"Our kids were never latchkey kids, and Lee working full-time was just too damaging on the family. Now that I have this job, she's been able to become the mom again," Keith said.
Their journey has not been easy, and it's not something everyone can do. The family owns their home, but they live without a phone or cable and many other things that most of us consider necessities, but they keep their eyes on the goal of graduation.
Keith is in his senior year, majoring in history, while Lee is working toward an associate's degree in marketing -- quite an accomplishment for these two who married young and were former high school dropouts.
"I was the one who wanted us to get the degrees in the first place. People who have degrees are like an exclusive club, and this will allow us to join the club. It gives you more pride in yourself," Lee said.
Keith said he's enjoyed going to college just for the chance to broaden his horizons.
"Going to college gets rid of your one-dimensional view. There are so many layers of knowledge and you never see that until you pursue it," he said.
Keith is already talking about going after his master's degree at West Virginia University. Lee would like to further her education in the field of foreign languages.
"We're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Lee said.
Assistant City Editor Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org