Goodbye Mullens … Happy 2016!

minionsIs December really coming to an end?

Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving, like — a week or so ago?

All this turkey tends to confuse. I am eating way more than I need to at all of our Mullens holiday parties and Christmas celebrations.

December was the four-month anniversary of my VISTA term, and I am learning so much about life in West Virginia. The staff at the MOC wanted to do something fun for all of our volunteers and donors, so we decided to capture this photo for the MOC Christmas card. How cool was that! We had a good month and wrapped up the holidays early.

I will be happy to spend Christmas with friends and family. I hope to bake a batch of buttermilk biscuits, which I learned from Allen, one of my co-workers at the MOC.

I packed up my things and headed north, and I noticed that Christmas in Cleveland feels different this year. I started it with my tradition of waking up early and going to St. Augustine Church in the Tremont neighborhood. It is right next door to the hunger center, and I love how everyone wishes you a heartfelt Merry Christmas. During the Mass, I was reminded of my new home as we all sang Go Tell It On the Mountain. This is a song I remember singing in grade school, but this time it took me back to the kids, the memories, the youth, and the families in Mullens.

My life in a small town is so different than city life. Appalachia is for people who are happy with the simple things. Down in the valley, in this quiet little coal town, people are proud to pray with you and tell you why God is good.

Whenever I think about service work, I realize how much I am moved by the experience. I am grateful that I have this unique opportunity to live a dual life. Back in Cleveland, my roommate and his dog are keeping an eye on things. This allows me to leave Cleveland behind every so often.

cascades3I think living in God’s Country is probably my greatest reward because the weather was perfect in December. I guess I should be expecting a lot more snow in the mountains, and everyone is telling me to get ready for lockdown by the time February rolls around. I will take what I am given, since the weather has been truly exceptional.

In between the holidays, I managed to find several wonderful places I had never seen before within a two-hour drive. When the weather hit 75 degrees one weekend, I decided to look for the Appalachian Trail near Pearisburg, Virginia. I was surprised to see signs for the New River while hiking the Narrows section because I didn’t realize just how far that river runs. It reminds me of the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland because it winds its way north and south through several counties — just like the New River.

hotdogs5It’s always fun to discover new things, too. I stumbled upon the Greenbrier River Trail after hanging out in Lewisburg one weekend, and it proved to be a place I will return to again and again. There is so much to do in the quaint little towns nearby, and I am excited about planning a trip for some friends when they make their next visit.

During the month of December, we had a lot of things going on. Our float won first prize in the Mullens Christmas Parade, and it was fun to hand out candy and watch everyone decorate their wagons and huddle along the parade route. After it was over, we all headed for the fire station to serve hotdogs with the volunteer firefighters. Here is my picture with Santa to mark the occasion.

xmasparty3The MOC staff also made a trip to the famous Greenbrier Hotel, where thousands of gifts are collected and donated to families in various Appalachian communities. We gave out more than 100 gifts during the annual MOC Christmas party. Tables full of turkeys and desserts are prepared for the big day, and Santa is invited to come to the MOC to hand out presents. The kids had a great time, especially when they were learning how to line dance with the older adults.

These tiny moments will always stay with me. I mentioned my hike along the Appalachian Trail during a weekend of amazing weather. There, I met up with Andrew, a deep-hearted thru-hiker who had gotten off to a late start this year. I asked him for directions just outside the Dairy Queen and he wanted to know if he could tag along to Cascade Falls with me. We had both heard about this beautiful stretch of trail located in the Jefferson National Forest.

Andrew seemed a lot like me. We talked about living an unconventional life that a lot of people question, and we decided we knew something they didn’t know.

After we parted, I thought about the trail we were supposed to take. We would have been one step closer to where the Great Eastern Trail enters Virginia. Funny, I had scouted a section of the trail a few weeks before, and we talked about these roads and how it met up near the AT.

I will have to hike the GET next time, I thought. How odd this has been for me — I live my entire life, weaving together so many of these unscripted moments. What sometimes feels serendipitous is often part of a bigger plan, which is why I ended up in West Virginia in the first place.

In the headline for this post,  I say goodbye to Mullens in 2015. I will be moving north up the mountain and serving the last eight months of my VISTA term in Beckley, WV. I will be working directly with the Appalachian Coal Country Team, one of three regional partners of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE. This is a federal bureau housed within the U.S. Department of Interior, and I will be working directly with the group that oversees Bridge Network and Conservation Legacy. I also hope to gain a better understanding of our work and how it connects to the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

I am not far from Mullens and the youth projects I have started. The group will be building raised beds and using some of the compost I created with the help of middle school students from Cleveland.

In 2013, I wanted to complete my master’s degree and take another career leap. I had hoped to be involved in some sort of conservation work by the time I graduated in 2014. Now that I decided to be a VISTA, things are beginning to take shape. It will be much easier to leave Cleveland behind, once I make this next move.

I will tell you more about my new role in Beckley and my next adventure in Appalachia. Until then, here’s to a great 2016!