Meanwhile, Back at the Office ….

treeNinety days in West Virginia – where has the time gone?

From August 17 to November 17, I have logged a lot of miles on my hiking boots. But if I don’t start talking about my work projects now, I probably never will, so let me turn my attention elsewhere.

First, I opened my inbox to find a really nice e-mail from our VISTA office:

Maria, 

Change is never easy. And the first three months of service are often the most challenging, with emotional highs and lows, and just hard work acclimating to your role at your site and in your community. 

You are likely stronger and wiser for it, and hopefully you are beginning to feel at home. Please remember, along with your supervisor, that your state office, and the VISTA Member Support Unit are here to help. 

This e-mail made me feel good, and lately, I have been deluged with a lot of good wishes. I had a team of interns from the OSMRE office visit me for a few days, along with my mentor, Dr. Allan Comp. There is something to be said about hanging out with Allan and the VISTAs, who are really an important life line. They relate to all my highs and lows, so to have these folks in my corner to lean on means the world to me.

The staff at the MOC has been working really hard. Every day, we have lots of community people stop in for meetings, dinners, support groups and workouts in the gym. Now that the weather is getting cooler, we have a dedicated group of people who walk the halls of the MOC each day. At the crack of dawn, it is always a welcome site because the people are there to greet me as I am grabbing my morning coffee.

And more coffee is what I need, since we have officially launched a program called RAIL Youth Corps. We have just hired four young adults and two AmeriCorps workers who will help us build trails and work on community service projects. We will be aided by the good work of Ross Innovative Employment Solutions (IES) and the Citizens Conservation Corps of West Virginia (CCCWV).

Ever since I started, I’ve been working on this program, developing an environmental education curriculum with researchers and other community partners. It has been an interesting process, so we are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We have a lot of interesting projects lined up, which I will be detailing in future blogs.

TuGuNuOne of the more challenging projects on the list is to look at topo maps and help chisel out a plan to bring the Great Eastern Trail through unmarked trail in Wyoming County. The GET runs parallel with the Appalachian Trail, and there are way too many mountains to track, log and map.

The interesting thing about the AT is that West Virginia is the only state completely immersed in Appalachia, yet ironically, very few miles in West Virginia are actually on the AT. On the other hand, the 1600-mile GET begins near the Finger Lakes of New York, carves its way through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, then travels south into Appalachia until it makes a final resting place in southern Alabama. The beauty is, Mullens is smack dab in the middle of the GET, and I am fortunate enough to be working with a very dedicated group of people who want to see their dream become a reality.

Two weekends ago, a group of us scouted the proposed trail with Tom Johnson, president of the Great Eastern Trail Association. We spent the whole day driving along dizzying roads and clamoring up rocky, uneven terrain. What an amazing project for our young AmeriCorps workers, who will learn a whole lot about how to work on public lands and make friends with land companies here in the Mountain State. Not surprisingly, only two people have thru-hiked the trail, and one of them was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer herself.

tfallshikeSo that was a lot of fun, then I scouted more trail the next day with some friends over at Twin Falls State Park. The park is only about six miles from me, and that has become my go-to hiking place. It is really beautiful there, and the park will be hosting a trail run in 2016, so our youth have more trail to build as part of their AmeriCorps program.

After a really great Arts and Crafts Fair at the MOC, we hosted a group of students from the University of Kentucky. Another RAIL AmeriCorps worker who I work with at the MOC led a group of six over to “the Lost Cemetery,” a historic resting place in Mullens that has been abandoned for decades. The group helped us clear a number of unmarked graves, which have shifted from heavy rains and flooding through the years.

Later, I got a chance to take the students on a cultural tour Sunday, and as we hiked up to Tater Hill, we talked about all the environmental challenges and the work that needs to be done. How I love talking to college students who have their whole life ahead of them! They are such idealists and dreamers, so it is easy to become immersed in anything they say is possible.

I also got a chance to look at the work they did the previous day. Part of this once forgotten field is just starting to take shape, and a number of veterans graves are clearly visible now and decorated with American flags, thanks to our visiting work team. Some of the headstones featured birthdates from the mid-1880s, so it will be interesting to have the AmeriCorps youth who are coming onboard dig around through county records and tell us what they’ve learned. It feels like we are putting a puzzle together, not knowing where one grave begins and another ends.

kudzuI submitted a couple of grants that will continue the good work of RAIL — if we can get them. Capacity building is a key part of my job description, so I am focusing on work that is intended to better the organization and the overall community. There are so many layers to all this, and it’s easy to get distracted. Do we start by fixing the abandoned coal mines? The flooding problems? The lack of jobs? The social ills? Acid mine drainage? Coal slag? Fecal coliform? Erosion? Invasives? OK, I promise to stop now. If I let it, this challenge will overwhelm me, and I wouldn’t have time for a whole lot of fun.

I like it when people recognize me, honk their horn from the street and say hello. Whenever I make my trips to Fayetteville, my New River friends are hard at work and always there with a smile.

When I am home along the river, I especially like to sit in silence and think about what all of these projects mean to me and everyone who lives in this community. I think a lot about what I am doing now, compared to three months prior, when I was growing tired of the big city and the headlines on Facebook. I need a break from all the chaos, which is why I still don’t care about television drama or the nightly news at 11. Now that I’ve made a move to this remote area, every minute of my life has meaning. Every hour triggers something that makes me stop and think — about the people I love, about my future, about a community that has impacted my view about life in so many different ways. I know I had mentioned in a previous post how I had set out to make this a research project, finding all the different parallels between rural and urban poverty. Instead, I am finding the differences between one city girl who has worked way too hard for all the wrong reasons, and one polite, overly generous community that is happy with simply enough.

tfcabinI wish I had time to keep a daily blog because there is so much I need to say in between the lines. I enjoy my daily life lessons, the scripture readings with Ronny, or talking about life in general with people who know hardship. All the cornbread, dumplings and pinto beans I have been eating are making me do a lot more sit ups, and I am starting to hang out by the river … and paint.

Yes, I said paint 🙂

I am the most ridiculous artist you’d ever meet, although I did paint a mural with a cool group of artist friends. Now, I am picking up some tubes of old paint, staring at that river, and learning a lot about what it is that makes me feel alive.