There was no TGIF for Jonathan Graham and Amanda Laucher.
Every other Friday night for months, following full workweeks, the Chicago spouses drove eight hours to Greene County.
“We’d arrive around 2 a.m. It was, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Laucher said with an eye roll.
They did that because they were providing a much-needed boost to a region that was largely sustained, for generations, by coal mining. A region that was having that lifeblood squeezed out by low demand, environmental regulations and shutdowns. A region where Laucher had grown up and where someone close to her was reeling.
Last summer, she and her British-born husband started Mined Minds, a free software development/tech consulting nonprofit geared toward the unemployed and underemployed personnel in Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Their goal is to teach technical skills that would enable people to transition into the tech industry, with the long-range hope of developing technology hubs in the traditional coal towns.
The Grahams – Amanda goes by Laucher professionally – continued to work as technology consultants in the Windy City as they launched Mined Minds. For eight months, they commuted biweekly – sometimes weekly – between there and Nemacolin Fire Hall, where, without charge, they tutored their students.
Then the couple made a major decision in May. They had an opportunity to purchase the Denny House – a stately Victorian on Waynesburg’s West High Street dating to 1836 – and did.
The Grahams decided that Greene County was the place to be, gave up their well-paying Chicago jobs, and set up teaching and training on the first floor of their new digs, their residence on the second.
“I’ve always wanted to walk to work,” quipped Laucher (pronounced locker), a Mapletown High graduate who grew up in Nemacolin.
Not only did the Grahams leave lucrative careers, they self-funded the startup of Mined Minds and “kept costs low by partnering with the community for space,” Amanda said.
“We are now expanding different avenues for funding to make the venture sustainable in the long term.”
Their training arm, Mined Minds Foundation, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, allowing the couple to accept donations and sponsorship. Their course is being conducted in partnership with Community College of Allegheny County, which charges tuition. And because the course is on the state system, many students can get full funding through PA CareerLink.
The couple also runs Mined Minds Consulting, which provides revenue and enables them to hire those they have trained.
Mined Minds has four full-time, salaried employees and two contract workers.
Oh, and they have a tenant living in the carriage house behind their home/office.
Marvin Laucher is one of the full-time employees, and his transition has gone better than he could have imagined. He was a coal miner for five years, a married father of three making good money but fully anticipating more job cuts. At a family picnic in Dilliner last July, he expressed his concerns to sister Amanda, a longtime tech consultant. She suggested that he learn computer coding; he thought no way.
“I could barely get to a website, let alone build one,” Marvin said in an April article on miners for CNNMoney.
Now this man without a college background is a computer programmer. Jonathan, 38, and Amanda, 35, smile when they consider how that flies in the face of what Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor/billionaire, said in 2014: “You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code.”
Robbie Matesic has a keen appreciation of Mined Minds. She is Greene County’s director of economic development.
“I think they are bringing something very important that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” Matesic said. “They are reaching out to youth and adults.
“The significance is it aligns with our efforts to diversify Greene County’s economy into manufacturing and technologies. Coal does not have long-term sustainability.
“What Mined Minds is doing really cool. And it’s cool for rural communities.”
It has been an interesting run for an interesting couple who have been married for two years. They met on a dance floor in Lithuania, he with a PhD in organic chemistry and a passion for music, she with an extensive background in software consulting and a traveler.
Community support is important to their endeavor, Jonathan said, and he has been impressed by the support they have gotten in Greene.
Mined Minds will start a full-time course in Waynesburg on Aug. 1, and plan to launch one in Charleston, W.Va., later that month.
Amanda Laucher is excited about the possibilities.
“If we teach fundamentals,” she said, “and people keep up with changes, they could have jobs for life.”