To The Future and Beyond

Honoring 10 members of our community who are helping make tomorrow better


Every year for more than a decade, the West Of Free Press has recognized people within the community who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help others or to make West Ashley a better place. But this year, we took a little bit different tack and focused solely on the future of West Ashley and those who are ensuring that it will be a great place to live over the next several decades.

While many of this year’s recipients are youngsters, some are relative youngsters, like a recent college graduate-turned City Council Member or a freshman Congressman. Others work hard teaching, mentoring, and fighting for the young people in our community. No matter what they do, all 10 of this year’s Westie Award winners are helping build a better future for West Ashley through their own successes and extraordinary efforts. As they lead by example, we can rest-assured that the future is in good hands.


Jerome Smalls

Former Wildcat is Heading for the Big Time

Jerome Smalls was supposed to wait until he came back from Georgetown in Washington, D.C. to make his big splash.

Well … Smalls has always been an overachiever from his early-teens when he was featured in local publications earning money for his education by mowing lawns. And then as an award-winning young entrepreneur with YesCarolina, run by uber-West Ashleyian Jimmy Bailey.

Since graduating from West Ashley High school in 2015, he has attended Georgetown University, interned in New York City for Bloomberg LP, formed a speaker’s bureau, published several books, and created a start-up, Small Talk.

Small Talk, which is also the title of one of the books Smalls wrote, is a company that strives to help higher education teachers better understand lower-income students who are the first generation in their families to go to college.

Small Talk does so through getting teachers to better understand the cultural differences between them and their students through storytelling and expanding their understanding of others’ cultural backgrounds.

When he graduates in May from Georgetown with a degree in marketing (earned on a full scholarship with ZERO debt), Smalls will begin a job with the university helping find more students exactly like him – again, lower-income first-generation.

“The idea is to reach out to the mass investment made in kids like me from the people who helped them get to Georgetown, like high school teachers, and find out what they need” to get the next Jerome Smalls into Georgetown.

“The goal is to take this nationwide, but first we have to create a cohort, or a pilot program,” says Smalls, to reach out to 40 different teachers across the country “and have them serve as mentors” to their fellow teachers and pass on important lessons to the school. — Bill Davis


Harry Griffin

Council’s Fresh Face Working Hard for West Ashley

Harry Griffin’s short stint on City Council has aged well beyond his 24 years. Elected as a 22-year-old to represent the part of West Ashley dominated by Shadowmoss, Griffin has been doing everything he could to turn back flooding.

Fighting flooding was the cornerstone of his door-to-door, family-to-family campaign. And since Griffin took his seat on council: 

• The feds and the city have bought out the oft-flooded Bridgepoint neighborhood.

• A further focus to flooding issues has been brought to the Church Creek Basin.

  The city has shook-up its stormwater office.

• More money has been appropriated to drainage in the basin than in the past 40 years.

• Newer, more stringent building codes and stormwater regulations have been put in place.

• Work has begun on building on an 11-acre lake in the northern part of the basin.

• … And the county and city are working together on expanding Glenn McConnell Parkway.

Griffin says winning the Westie this year was an “honor.” But for him, he says the real joy is in the work.

“It’s not always a fun job, but I have fun helping people; I get motivated by new challenges, taking on burdens that plagues them and puts sour looks on their faces,” says Griffin.

“If I can do something to turn a frown upside down, then that’s what makes me happy; not recognition,” Griffin continues.

“Nothing makes me feel better than helping others feel better … and you telling me I won an award,” he says with a wink loud enough to be heard over the phone. — Bill Davis


Sloan Pittard

Helping Others is a Sweet Treat for Local Girl

While the Westie Award itself may just be a cheap plastic cow dipped in gold paint, the real gold is in the heart of our youngest-ever Westie winner Sloan Pittard. With older generations often maligning today’s youth as spoiled, selfish, and lazy, this 7-year-old is proving them all wrong.

Last year Sloan set out to raise some money for MUSC Children’s Health. She had an initial goal of donating $15. She baked cupcakes and with some help from her little brother, offered them for free in the front yard of their Byrnes Downs home. All she did was ask that folks make a donation to the cause.

When the cupcakes ran out, Sloan offered up hot chocolate, coffee, and bagels. In the end she raised $1,038.98.

In December when she presented the money to MUSC, pediatric oncologist Dr. Michelle P. Hudspeth told Sloan that her particular donation would go to the research lab for Neuroblastoma. Sloan had an aunt who passed away from Neuroblastoma 40 years ago and this was a very special tribute to her.

Doing good deeds is nothing new for this youngster. A couple years earlier while living in Florida, Sloan saved the life of a dear friend she found at the bottom of a pool. She brought him to the surface and swam him to the steps. The Palm Beach Fire Department awarded Sloan with a “Certificate of Heroism.”  — Lorne Chambers


Liz Pucino

Delivering the Future, One Child at a Time

No one sees evidence of the recent West Ashley growth spurt more clearly than Liz Pucino who daily juggles the management of the Roper St. Francis Physician Partners Ob/Gyn and Neonatology practices where she coordinates a health care team of 23 medical providers caring for families giving birth to more than 1,600 babies at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley each year. Her teammates describe her as “enthusiastic and resourceful, compassionate, fun-loving, efficient, and organized.” And she needs to be all of those things to lead and manage this busy and growing obstetrical practice.

Pucino is a Springfield Elementary and West Ashley High School graduate and played soccer with the Carolina Girls and Classic League. She went to the College of Charleston and earned her MHA from Bellevue University. Married for 11 years to husband Michael, she volunteers at daughter Gabriella’s school, Springfield Elementary, and her sporting activities at Bees Ferry Landing.

Pucino started her medical career as an office receptionist and has managed the RSF Physician Partners Ob/Gyn practice for four years of rapid growth. They have doubled sonography services and added outreach and community education.

Pucino respects and enjoys each team member and physician in the practice. She loves the sense of community of West Ashley and describes it as “rewarding and humbling” to  work in a multi-generational medical practice that cares for mothers, daughters, and grandmothers in our community.  — Joan Perry


Lacey McBeth

Mentoring Healthcare Leaders of Tomorrow

Lacey McBeth was born in downtown Charleston and moved  to West Ashley as a child. She sings in the Royal Missionary Baptist Church Choir and serves as caregiver for her father. Lacey has a sideline event-planning business with friends called, “Women, Beautiful, Determined & Wise.”

Lacey has worked as a Patient Care Technician at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital for 28 years and still loves her job. In 2003 she began serving as a mentor for high school and college students eager to go into the medical field. Since that time she has been the first-day medical experience for hundreds of young people hoping for careers as nurses, physician assistants, and physicians.

Wearing fresh new scrub uniforms they report for duty and shadow and learn from Lacey as she goes in and out of hospital rooms caring for and loving her patients. She has become a role model and inspiration as students request to be placed with her again and again, send her thank you cards and let her know as they earn acceptance letters to nursing and medical schools.

Lacey can look around any hospital in Charleston to find health care professionals who walked into their first patient room at her side. We can all be assured of quality and compassionate healthcare providers in the future because of Lacey’s willingness to mentor and guide students today.  — Joan Perry


Jason Wheless

WAHS Culinary Instructor Shares Recipe for Success

Ten years ago, when Jason Wheless took over the culinary program at West Ashley High, it was little more than a home economics class called Food & Nutrition.

A decade later and the culinary program there has won a state championship, placed eighth in national competitions, and traveled as far away as Texas and California to compete against the rest of the nation’s elite programs.

Wheless’ students now work in the fronts and backs of restaurants from Bessingers Barbecue and Zen Fusion in West Ashley, to Peninsula Grill, SNOB, and Circa 1886 downtown.

The program has partnered with tons more local restaurateurs, as well as Limehouse Produce, Rotary Club, the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, the Trident United Way, and most recently Bread and Butter, a non-profit group hoping to link students with chefs for mentoring and future jobs.

The program now teaches students everything from culinary management, knife work, and sanitation to the soft skills of interacting with the public and team building.

Teaching upward of 100 kids a year comes with its pluses and minuses, says Wheless, whose son graduated from WAHS.

“The most difficult is to get them to take ownership of their education, which is always the hardest thing about teaching teenagers,” he says. “But when students really go into it and fully commit, it’s a really special time.”

Wheless says that WAHS has given him enough autonomy to direct the program how he sees fit. To that he brings his own cooking experience at bygone fine dining establishments like The Woodlands in Summerville, as well as 82 Queen, and Al Di La in West Ashley, where he was chef de cuisine for a time.

This day’s lesson included working with chocolate; spread out through the program’s kitchen are the building blocks of pralines and truffles.

Back in the classroom, Wheless prepares the café portion for the next day’s “café bistro,” which sells coffee and bagels in the morning, and fancy lunch, with proceeds going to pay for the next competition.

“It doesn’t stop,” he says. And that’s a good thing, because people love to eat, and his students love to cook.  — Bill Davis


Joe Cunningham

Freshman Congressman Leads With Balance

West Ashleyian Joe Cunningham may not be a kid, but he’s the new kid in Congress. But Cunningham was never meant to be in Washington, D.C., serving as a congressman representing the very conservative 1st District in South Carolina.

The boundaries of the 1st had been hand-drawn as a gift to future Republicans, like its past congressman Mark Sanford. The lines swerved and swooped around downtown black neighborhoods in Charleston, so the district would remain a “heritage” district for Republicans.

But then fate intervened in the name of Katie Arrington, a normally water-carrying Republican state representative who wanted to ride the populist coattails of Donald Trump into Congress.

Arrington ran the only kind of campaign than could unseat a popular former governor: hard. Real hard. It surprised some of her colleagues in the Statehouse how hard she went. But it worked.

So, Arrington should have been a shoe-in. Until she blew it by supporting offshore drilling for oil. Suddenly, Arrington gift-wrapped a wedge issue for Democrat Cunningham who split Republicans along the state coast.

Coastal Republican mayor after Coastal Republican mayor jumped on Cunningham’s bandwagon. And then his telegenic smile, trim waist, and newborn baby began to show up at local breweries and superb political commercials that featured him treading in the same waters Arrington had flip-flopped on plundering.

Arrington was sunk as Cunningham floated to a close win. Since taking office this year, Cunningham has done the unthinkable: he’s kept campaign promises. He voted against Speaker Pelosi keeping her job, and he’s avoided harsh partisan battles, reaching across the aisle.

He hasn’t advocated for “socialism,” and he hasn’t called for impeachment. His path, so far, has been right down the middle.

Will that be enough to garner a second term? Hard to say. His “via media” manner may leave voters confused as to whether he is fish or if he is fowl, and leave a bigger question mark in their heads. But until then, “Big” Joe (apologies Mayor Riley) is the man.  — Bill Davis


Caleb Alexander

Local Illusionist’s Success is no Magic Trick

Illusionist Caleb Alexander grew up dreaming of touring across the country performing magic for people. In 2014, he took an entrepreneurship class at West Ashley High School through a program developed by local nonprofit YEScarolina – Youth Entrepreneurship South Carolina. In 2015 Alexander was named the YEScarolina Student Entrepreneur of the Year.

While still a student at WAHS, he was also honored by national entrepreneurship organization the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and was one of the nation’s top 25 young entrepreneurs and was invited to New York for the organization’s annual Global Showcase.

Straight out of high school Alexander began performing as a supporting act on huge tours in some of the biggest and most beautiful venues in the world. Yet he says one of the most gratifying things he’s ever done is perform for the kids of the MUSC Children’s Hospital. “My mom spent time there as a kid and being able to go there full circle was so humbling, it’s something I’ll never forget,” says the young magician.

Alexander currently lives in the entertainment capital of the Midwest, Branson, Mo. and performs in a show called “Edge of Illusion” along with his friend and famous illusionist Reza. The group performs 150-plus residency shows in Branson every year as well as 100-plus international tour shows.

Since his days as a student-magician at WAHS, Alexander says he’s been able to refine his skills and is excited to fly home to unveil the headlining show he’s been working on. 

According to Alexander, his journey has been incredible as well as a huge learning experience. “This entertainment industry is cut-throat and I’m blessed to be able to build a career for myself; especially at a young age,” he says.  — Lorne Chambers


Michael Miller

Fighting for the Children of West Ashley

When the new Stono Elementary School reopens in West Ashley in August, it may be the biggest achievement on Michael Miller’s resume.

Miller had been fighting publicly for students since 2012, when he was first elected to the Charleston County School Board representing West Ashley.

One of the bigger fights he waged was making sure the school district followed through with its promise to rebuild the school that largely caters to lower-income minority students.

In 2010, voters approved a one-cent local sales tax increase to fund a variety of district-wide school building and improvement projects. That included rebuilding a tiny elementary on Sullivans Island, as well as Stono.

But when push came to shove in the budgeting process, it looked like rebuilding creaking Stono was going to get scuttled in favor of projects in other parts of town. Miller, buoyed by grassroots organizers in the area, would have none of it.

Working from the inside, Miller helped convince the board to live up to its complete promise. And nine years later, that is slated to happen when the new school opens on its former site.

Miller, a college soccer player, was able to help in the fight while also cutting hair at his West Ashley barbershop. And later, as he ran and won to become the county’s first Register of Deeds.

Not only is it as new office, Miller is one of only a handful of black candidates to win a countywide partisan race for a county office, so his latest win can be seen as historical.

There is some concern that the county school district will redraw Stono’s district lines and change the nature of the school drastically. There were howls from families whose homes were swallowed by an expanded Stono district that the county redrew to bolster the student population. But a second redrawing of the district seems to have quieted those complaints, but left the school with an awkward and disconnected district.

Miller asserts that the lines are solid for now, though the district could redraw them in the future, and his new job isn’t “as good as it could be, and not as bad as it could be, either.”  — Bill Davis


Kathleen Wilson

Cooking Up Something Positive

It’s not every day that someone who doesn’t live in West Ashley wins a Westie. It’s even rarer when a former politician representing James Island takes home a golden cow trophy.

But Kathleen Wilson has done just that. The former City Councilperson representing James Island has thrown herself into an effort to land a huge aquatics center (read: indoor pool) in the Citadel Mall area.

Wilson, a distance swimmer who has crossed the English Channel in the past, has been fighting for a high-end natatorium in the area, complaining that local facilities aren’t up to snuff.

She’d like to see a $50 million facility replete with Olympic pool, diving tank, a teaching pool, and other amenities on par with other successful aquatic centers in Charlotte, Greensboro, and beyond.

In that type of place, kids could learn to be swimmers, compete, while next door first-responders could get needed training in the deeper water tank in scuba and other modalities.

Economic impact studies have shown a center like she foresees could bring upward of $3 million annually to the local economy. Wilson says that the city wouldn’t have to foot the total bill, as she thinks the county, state, and private monies could flow into a project like this one.

And if developer Richard Davis is successful converting the mall into a national youth sports destination, then the center would be perfectly situated for hotels and restaurants.

Additionally, Wilson hopes the center would help fill coffers in the area’s TIF, or tax increment financing, district that will raise and direct tax collections in the area for projects bolstering that part of West Ashley.  — Bill Davis

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