July 22, 2017

Boy Scout public service enhances Wyoming County, WV tourism development

The Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) has selected the Guyandotte River Park to hold a news conference on July 25 at 10:00 AM to demonstrate what can be accomplished and what it takes to get the best benefits from the Boy Scout community service initiative.  RAIL, that operates out of Mullens, WV, will be constructing two walk bridges, a sign for the park, a boat ramp for launching small river craft, and a PVC raft that will be used to clean up trash and fallen trees along the river.  This public park, owned and operated by RAIL, is situated on the Coal Heritage Trail (Route 16) between Wyoming East High School and New Richmond.  David Sebastiao, of Baltimore University, will be videoing the scouts’ work as an integral part of his documentary of the RAIL Guyandotte River projects.

Although RAIL is spearheading four days of Boy Scout initiatives it would not be possible without wide cooperation and support from other agencies.  Coal Heritage Highway Authority provided funding for the river project; Wyoming County EDA provided the guidance and connection to CCC WV essential to being awarded a day of Boy Scout community service.  CCC WV also provided materials and, more importantly, is sponsoring an AmeriCorps team to RAIL without which these and other community enhancements would not be possible.  WV DOH improved access to the site; Lowe’s of Beckley and Princeton donated materials and gave special attention to providing other materials that were purchased.  Gary Runion and other local volunteers have spent many hours getting materials ready for the days of building.  The Boy Scout community service initiative gives those living in southern West Virginia an opportunity to come together and demonstrate their strength in taking steps to build a new economic base.

All are invited to celebrate the Boy Scouts’ community service at a music program at the Mullens Opportunity Center, Tuesday, July 25, beginning at 8:00 PM.  The evening’s entertainment is Provided by RAIL.  Come and enjoy Buddy Allen and the Cheat River Band.

Feb 27, 2017

RAIL working to bring tourists into area


Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) is working to develop the area tourism industry, based on the region’s culture and heritage and naturally occurring attributes, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL president.

“RAIL is working on ways to transform mine-scarred lands into community assets such as parks and recreational facilities, mountain biking trails, and assuring the Great Eastern Trail is routed through the coalfields,” Houck explained.

“Geographically, the area RAIL serves is located within 500 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population and has great potential to prosper as a tourism destination,” he said.

“A new four-lane highway will soon connect Mullens to Interstates 64 and 77 by a 20-minute drive.

“The Coal Heritage Trail, the Guyandotte River Water Trail, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, and the planned Great Eastern Trail pass through the Mullens’ city limits,” Houck said.

At this point, however, Mullens is receiving few benefits from the projects, Houck said.

“RAIL has invested thousands of volunteer hours into making the area more tourism friendly,” Houck emphasized.

“It now needs to develop a professionally-managed, comprehensive plan and pull together a dedicated labor force to reach the full potential of the benefits of a tourism economy,” Houck noted.

The Rural Appalachian Improvement League staff and dozens of volunteers have breathed new life into the former Mullens Grade School building which sits on the banks of the Guyandotte River.

The center features camp sites for travelers and ATV riders, picnicking and fishing along the river, a coal/railroad museum, as well as both indoor and outdoor stages for concerts and other community events.

“The MOC is home for a fall and spring festival as well as many functions that bring people together,” Houck said.

The Mullens Opportunity Center, known locally as the MOC, now houses a variety of projects – from agriculture, to health and wellness, to tourism.

In addition to amenities for tourists, the three-acre parcel is home to a vibrant community center that also offers healthy living classes, a safe place to exercise, youth development programs, space for small businesses, agriculture programs that include community gardens and a seasonal farmer’s market.

Currently, RAIL does not have sufficient management capacity to fully utilize the amenities to produce a profit, Houck said.

“The MOC has very good profit potential and can become an important stop for ATV riders along the Hatfield-McCoy (Recreational) Trail.”


Feb 6, 2017

Youth work to improve communities


Through a partnership with the state Citizens Conservation Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service, RAIL has six new CCC AmeriCorps members, including, standing from second left, Kody Lester, Jacob Stewart, Matt Wilcox, Wyatt Smith along with, in front, Meredith Helmick and Whitney Mitchell. Also pictured are Joey Ashley, standing left, of the National Council on Aging, formerly Experience Works; Dorothy Horne, standing far right, of CCC, and Charlene Cook, of RAIL.

Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) is combining the talents of area youth with those who are more mature in an effort to improve the community.

Through a partnership with the state Citizens Conservation Corps and Corporation for National and Community Service, RAIL has six AmeriCorps members who recently joined the program.

Four positions through the National Council on Aging, formerly known as Experience Works, are also providing assistance for RAIL at no cost.

“Our goal is to train, prepare and assist this group in helping to build a new, improved social order and economic base in the coalfields,” Dewey Houck, RAIL president, said of the CCC AmeriCorps program.

“What we are attempting to do is take resources that are readily available, or at little cost, and use these resources wisely to help work our way out of poverty,” Houck said.

The program involving the youth is called West Virginia Coalfield Communities Conservation Corps and will be modeled along the same lines as the CCC program of the Great Depression era, Houck explained.

The federal program provides the youth a monthly living allowance and a $5,815 education scholarship following one year of service, he added.

Program participants include Matt Wilcox of Mullens, Kody Lester of Herndon, Whitney Mitchell of Indian Creek, along with Meredith Helmick, Jacob Stewart and Wyatt Smith, all of Pineville.

The high school graduates all indicated they want to stay in Wyoming County, Houck said, thus the program works to provide them the job skills to do that.

“A significant emphasis will be placed on utilizing their labor for developing business on lands damaged by coal mining and related industries,” Houck said.

Under the direction of Dorothy Horne, of CCC, which is part of Volunteer West Virginia, the Wyoming County participants are working in conjunction with those at the Twin Branch Adventure Facility in McDowell County.

As part of the education elements, the youth will be concentrating on environmental skills that include erosion control, wetlands, vegetation and stream banks.

Additionally, individualized training geared toward each participant’s interests will be integrated into his/her training.

Along with educational components of the program, the participants will be doing physical labor such as building community gardens, constructing trails, wild life enhancement projects, working with school gardening programs, and with the Mullens Opportunity Center’s agriculture projects.

“A portion of their labor will be dedicated to learning opportunities, such as specialized farming, building high tunnel greenhouses and producing specialty family farm products to include nuts, chestnuts, berries, mushrooms, poultry, beef, pork, and fish,” Houck said.

“Local business people have volunteered to mentor the participants.”

Horne said the group will also be assisting with special community events such concerts, craft shows, among others.

She noted the participants will be “job ready” when they complete the highly structured program.

Participating in the program will also build their confidence, Horne said.

“When they leave (the program), they know they can do whatever they need to do,” she emphasized.

The program goal is to help participants create at least three new businesses that will employ others, Houck said.

More than $72,000 in payroll benefits will be generated in Wyoming County due to the program, Houck emphasized, along with nearly $35,000 in scholarships.


Jan 30, 2017

MOC needs families for program


One of several programs now under way at the Mullens Opportunity Center, also known as the MOC, is a farming program available to 25 families in Wyoming County.

Families are being recruited now and those interested are urged to contact the MOC.

Developing specialty agricultural and energy programs is another way to help support families in the Appalachian coalfields, emphasized Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens.

The RAIL program is housed in the MOC.

“Berea College has just awarded RAIL a grant to assist 25 families with starting a vegetable garden,” Houck noted.

Assistance will be provided with plowing and planting, RAIL will also provide the seeds and tools, Houck said.

The gardens can be planted in whatever location the family wants, he added.

Additionally, participants will also be instructed on how to “can” their harvest.

“This is a pretty nifty program,” Houck emphasized.

For families that are interested, RAIL can also provide a high tunnel greenhouse at a reduced cost.

Ruby Ingram, who has managed the Farm to School program for RAIL, will manage the project.

“With the demise of the coal business economy, families must turn to other vocations to earn a livelihood if they desire to remain in coal country,” Houck said.

“For the past four years, RAIL has worked diligently to establish an agricultural program by managing a Farmers Market that accepts SNAP benefits in addition to establishing a Farmers CO-OP,” Houck said.

A $7,250 grant from WVU Appalachian Foodshed paid for an AmeriCorps VISTA member to help build the MOC into a model farming project.

Duquesne University donated $2,400 and a $1,000 fundraiser paid for a high tunnel, a watering system, tool house, and composting bin.

“The system is a small scale farming operation that can demonstrate the economic value as well as health benefits for local families,” Houck explained.

RAIL acquired its high tunnel from Grow Appalachia, a program at Berea College that fabricates high tunnels.

RAIL is now working with David Cook at Grow Appalachia, a subsidiary of Berea College, to fabricate and assemble components at its Commerce Center in Itmann.

“RAIL looks at high tunnels and greenhouses as a potentially lucrative business on mine-scarred lands, mountaintop removal sites, and old abandoned mountain farms,” Houck said.

“RAIL has reestablished an orchard on a former mountain farm that will provide fruit for all the local schools and those of need.

“The property has a gas well and high energy electric lines within sight.

“The property has a series of gas wells, and coal mining cleanup and AML sites within a four-mile radius.

“The area is very conducive to building solar farms and highly efficient gas-powered electricity turbine generators.

“The operation envisioned by RAIL would grow fresh vegetables year-round and produce surplus electricity for the grid.

“Most properties involved are owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway, who has been very supportive of RAIL programs. Norfolk Southern can provide rail service to transport heavy articles, such as gas turbines, that can provide enough electricity for the greenhouses and the entire county at 60 to 70 percent efficiency when supplemented by solar,” Houck noted.

“One site in the area would probably support a wind turbine.

“With the advancements in solar technology this can become a very profitable operation that could produce fresh vegetables as well as very environmentally-friendly energy that can be marketed through the local grid.”

Houck said, in 2015, UMW President Cecil Roberts called for the state Legislature to take advantage of a 1985 law that allows a state agency to issue public bonds to construct new power plants, using a public-private partnership.

“These are the kinds of opportunities that need to be explored,” Houck emphasized. “Give the people the tools they really need to help themselves – and that is energetic, creative, and professional leadership at the grassroots level and they will solve their own problems.”

The Mullens Opportunity Center is located at 300 Front Street in Mullens, in the former Mullens Grade School building.

For more information, phone 304-294-6188.


May 9, 2016

Mullens Opportunity Center will conduct farmers market

Photo courtesy of Dewey Houck

Butch McNeely, in orange shirt, State Farm agent in Mullens, assisted young adults in the garden at the Mullens Opportunity Center. McNeely arranged a $5,000 grant through State Farm to support the agriculture programs at the center.

 Beginning in late June, the Mullens Opportunity Center staff will again offer free space for those who wish to sell their fresh produce this summer during their farmers market.

Charlene Cook, director of operations at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), and Ruby Ingram, Farm To School coordinator, have peas in the garden and half-runners in the high tunnel greenhouse to help boost the fresh produce that will be offered to those that support the farmers market at the center.

All who have a garden and wish to earn a little extra cash are urged to bring their extra produce to the MOC farmers market and offer it for sale.

“There is no fee to sell at the market and good produce goes quickly,” said Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

“The MOC hopes to provide produce through the SNAP program again this year,” Houck noted.

“Only those that sell their own produce and other goods will be welcome to sell their goods at the gardeners’ market,” he emphasized.

The free services and opportunities offered at the MOC are funded through many sources and volunteers, Houck explained.

Most importantly is Wyoming County Board of Education which provides the facility, Houck said.

The young adult labor is provided through a ROSS IES youth program which is funded through Region 1 Workforce.

Experience Works also provides labor through an older adult training program, Houck said.

Additionally, two AmeriCorps positions are provided through CCC West Virginia.

“RAIL must pay a fee for one AmeriCorps State and one AmeriCorps VISTA,” Houck noted.

Additionally, Butch McNeely, RAIL charter member and State Farm agent in Mullens, coordinated a $5,000 State Farm grant to assist with funding the Young Adult program at the center.

McNeely has supported the Mullens Opportunity Center since it opened in 2002, Houck said.


Nov 23, 2015

RAIL volunteers clear, research the ‘Lost Cemetery of Mullens’


Tim McGraw, right, and University of Kentucky volunteers identify and document African American graves from World War II in the “Lost Cemetery of Mullens.” The house in the background is where Nuriva coal tipple once stood, according to officials.

Several University of Kentucky students spent a weekend cleaning up and identifying grave sites in the “Lost Cemetery of Mullens,” along with local volunteers and staff from the Mullens Opportunity Center.

“Perched on a hillside across Slab Fork creek from the former coal camp of Nuriva, the cemetery is now a part of the city of Mullens,” explained Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) director.

The RAIL Culture and Heritage Team is currently researching graves in the cemetery, Houck said.

During a recent visit, team members discovered the graves of three African American veterans from World War II.

“In addition, several unmarked graves were uncovered, buried under fallen leaves, branches and other debris.

“Some believe the Chinese workers, who died from the Caloric tunnel collapse while the Virginian Railway was being constructed, are also buried in the cemetery,” Houck said.

The Mullens Opportunity Center and RAIL have hosted several spring break teams and other volunteers during the past year, Houck emphasized. “Teams from Duquesne, Ohio State, Northwestern, Connecticut, Baltimore, Christopher Newport, Elon, Kentucky, and Madonna High School…”

“Weirton committed more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service this past year,” he said.

“Wyoming County volunteers committed over 2,000 hours planning, supervising, and assisting the volunteers,” Houck noted.

“University spring break teams account for about half of RAIL volunteer efforts,” Houck said.

These community projects are possible due to support from Wyoming County Schools, which provides the MOC facilities to host volunteers during their stays, according to Houck.

“Volunteer hours are completely dedicated to projects that enhance the community.

“For example, a high tunnel and gardening complex was built at the MOC,” Houck said. “Flood debris was cleared along the Guyandotte River. Raised beds were also installed at local schools for gardening.”

In September, more than 50 people participated in a cleanup project at the historic Itmann Company Store building.

In addition, the Guyandotte River Park was cleaned up and a boat ramp was installed with the help of Wyoming County East High School students.

“A trail was also built along Milam Creek, and building repairs and other projects were completed, all helping to make Wyoming County a better place to live and attract businesses,” Houck said.

Five spring break teams are booked for the 2016 season, which begins the last week in February and ends the last week of March.

“RAIL is considering an AmeriCorps NCCC team that would arrive in May, with a team of 10 and stay for six to 10 weeks.

“Since 2000, RAIL has averaged over 10,000 (volunteer) hours per year and looks to exceed the average in 2015 and 2016,” Houck emphasized.


Oct 5, 2015

Volunteers working to save historic Itmann Co. Store


Elron University students hauled load after load of clothing and other debris from the Itmann Company Store to dumpsters Tuesday as part of the statewide Day to Serve observance. Area volunteers, bottom photo, armed with chainsaws, weed-eaters and brush hogs chewed through the brush and weeds overtaking the Itmann Company Store building Tuesday. The massive cleanup project was spearheaded by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

ITMANN – Area volunteers and a team of students and advisors from Elon University, in North Carolina, worked to clean up the iconic Itmann Company Store building, as well as begin construction of a “boat ramp” at the Guyandotte River Park, Tuesday, part of the statewide Day to Serve observance.

Once a picturesque testament to the early 20th century coal boom, the crumbling Itmann structure had become a community eyesore. Over the last few years, the historic facility has been seriously damaged by vandals, looted by thieves, overshadowed by thick brush and tall weeds, with portions used as a dump for tons of old clothing and other trash.

”This may be the most important project we’ve ever done,” emphasized Dewey Houck, executive director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

While men armed with chainsaws, weed-eaters and brush hogs chewed at the outside overgrowth, the students hauled load after load of clothing and other trash from the building to dumpsters provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Wyoming County Commission.

Houck said the property would be boarded up, at least temporarily, to secure the building and keep vandals from further destroying the facility until a plan could be devised to make the property a viable part of the community again.

“Everything takes money,” Houck noted. “As a non-profit, RAIL can get involved and at least get the property cleaned up with no cost to anybody.”

In cooperation with Billy Wayne Bailey, property owner, “the cleanup comes at a time when RAIL is working with local youth to assist with other community projects,” Houck said.

“We hope to get our youth program in operation later this fall,” Houck added. “That will provide a work team to keep the property clean and secure until a plan is developed to find the best use for it.

“We must all pull together to assure it’s not lost to decay.

“Hopefully, we can build a partnership of governments, resource providers, and others to begin a dialogue with Billy Wayne,” Houck said. “We need to determine if there might be some way to preserve the structure and include it in a plan to produce jobs in Wyoming County.”

Designed by Bluefield architect Alexander Mahood, the gigantic facility was constructed by Italian stonemasons in the mid 1920s. It housed the Pocahontas Fuel Company offices and store, as well as the post office, doctor’s office, among other services. The town was named after company president, Issac T. Mann. The mine and company store closed in the 1980s, and the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The 15 Elon University students, along with two advisors, were divided between cleaning up the Itmann property and assisting with the beginning phase of the Guyandotte River Park boat ramp.

The students are part of the university’s Gap Program, according to Elizabeth Coder, program coordinator.

The college freshman will not begin traditional campus courses until the next semester begins in January.

This semester, the students are being trained in leadership, environmental science and outdoor living skills.

Thus far, they have participated in a 25-day, 75-mile backpack hike through the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming, service projects in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., and St. Louis, Mo., and will spend six weeks in Costa Rica before their semester ends.

“This is just the first phase,” explained Maria Dimengo, of RAIL, as volunteers cleared a path to the Guyandotte River from the small roadside park, near Wyoming County East High School.

When completed, park visitors may launch a small water craft from the ramp.

It is an effort to make the park and the river more “water craft friendly,” she said.

Additionally, the volunteers completed maintenance on the walking paths and picnic area in the park.


Sep 14, 2015

Agricultural programs expanding locally


A high tunnel greenhouse, pictured right, and gardens at the Mullens Opportunity Center can easily provide a large portion of food necessary to feed a large family, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL director. The MOC gardening practices are providing produce for the weekly farmers’ market. Pictured are Tim McGraw, left, and Ruby Ingram at the MOC garden complex which will produce fresh vegetables April-November. For more information or assistance in obtaining a high tunnel greenhouse at little or no cost, Houck is urging residents to phone the MOC at 304-294-6188.

Agricultural programs in Wyoming County are moving forward, including a Farm To School project and a farmers’ market, according to Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) director.

“Projects being implemented in 2015 are paving the way to establish agriculture as a new business in the southern West Virginia coalfields,” Houck said.

“A lot of people are involved in the process and I feel like we can help bring gardening back as a way of life in the coalfields,” Houck said.

“Since Secretary of Agriculture Walt Helmick visited Wyoming County in January, much has transpired to promote agriculture in the coalfields,” Houck noted.

Helmick discussed the benefits of high tunnel greenhouses, and other agricultural practices, with area farmers at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC).

“Wyoming County residents and the local school system are proving to be a ready market for fresh fruits and produce.”

Ruby Ingram, an AmeriCorps member sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Education, established a Farm to School Program in the county.

Through the program, raised beds and other gardening practices were established at Herndon Consolidated Elementary and Middle, Mullens Middle and Mullens Elementary schools, Houck said.

The goal is for students to grow fresh vegetables for their school meals.

Lowe’s in Beckley provided lumber at no cost for the raised beds.

Also making contributions to the Farm to School program were Second Street Station, Tankersly Funeral Home, First Peoples Bank, Wyoming County Board of Education, First Community Bank, Leah Brewer and Charlene Cook.

Area businesses also provided additional resources, Houck said.

“The Farm to School Program will eventually connect farmers to schools so that local produce can be sold directly to the school,” Houck explained.

West Virginia University, through the Appalachian Foodshed Project, provided seed funding for a farmers’ market in Mullens.

The market has been conducted each Thursday at the MOC through the summer.

The Appalachian Foodshed Project is a program that assists West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky in expanding farming projects.

“Funding from the AFP Project made it possible to double SNAP and other benefits so those of need could receive twice the amount of their benefits,” Houck said. “Their funding also paid the cost for an AmeriCorps position and half the cost of a VISTA.”

Only local products can be sold at the farmers’ market, which will continue until the end of September.

Some vegetables from the MOC high tunnel greenhouse and fall crops will be sold as they become available later in the season.

Building a Farmers CO-OP is in the planning process in an effort to sell vegetables and fruits to the public and to the school system next year, he said.

Charlene Cook, along with Experience Works and ROSS IES workforces, have been able to use the MOC high tunnel greenhouse and gardens to provide an abundance of fresh vegetables to help get the farmers’ market established in Mullens, Houck said.

Local vendors as well as farmers from McDowell County are also selling their vegetables at the MOC market.

“The farming program would not have been possible without the help and momentum that came about through local volunteers and spring break teams from Ohio State, Baltimore University, Northwestern, Christopher Newport, and Duquesne,” Houck emphasized.

The volunteer effort, led by Gary Runion, provided more than 3,000 hours building the high tunnel complex.

Shirley Weaver, RAIL board member, spearheaded a fundraiser in her Florida hometown and raised $2,000.

Duquesne University participants coordinated a fundraiser that raised $2,400 to help jumpstart the agricultural program at the MOC, Houck noted.

“Although the mountainous area does not have large level parcels, there is more than enough space to feed the local population with plenty left over to market elsewhere,” Houck said.

“There is a demand for agricultural products that need little land and low investment to produce fruit, berries, nuts, mushrooms, honey, ginseng, pork, venison, goat and fish.

“By bringing together available resources and by applying human perseverance, farming can once again help support the livelihood of families in Appalachia.

“Once established, a high tunnel greenhouse and garden the size of the MOC complex can easily provide a large portion of food necessary to feed a large family,” he said.

The MOC garden complex includes a high tunnel greenhouse, vegetable garden, tool shed, watering system and compost bin that will produce fresh vegetables April through November.

“Through a USDA program, Wyoming County families are eligible to receive a high tunnel greenhouse at no cost or little cost,” Houck emphasized.

A high tunnel greenhouse can cost up to $10,000, Houck said.

For more information or assistance in obtaining a high tunnel greenhouse, Houck is urging residents to phone the MOC at 304-294-6188.


July 14, 2014

AmeriCorps team, volunteers work on projects By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming, County Bureau Chief 

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An AmeriCorps NCCC six-member team from Vicksburg, Miss., is spending 10 weeks in Mullens through the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL). On Friday, the team, along with local volunteers, will work at the Guyandotte River Park, located near Wyoming County East High School and part of the Coal Heritage Trail, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL director. The team will also assist with Wyco Church restoration efforts, a Friends of Milam Creek plan and Mullens Opportunity Center tourism enhancement projects. Ages 18-24, the group will be housed in the MOC, Houck said, and contribute more than 2,400 volunteer hours at no cost to the community, with the exception of their lodging. AmeriCorps NCCC is a federal program similar to the Citizens Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Sponsoring organizations, such as RAIL, must provide sleeping and cooking accommodations as well as community service projects, Houck noted. Sponsors must also provide a detailed grant application and concise project schedule. Team members provide their own transportation, purchase their food and cook their own meals, Houck said. “The Mullens Opportunity Center has facilities for teams such as NCCC, and MOC staff and volunteers are excellent hosts for out-of-town work crews,” Houck emphasized. “The NCCC team visit to Mullens is made possible by volunteers that make up RAIL that will orchestrate over 15,000 hours of volunteer service dedicated to community and economic development in southern West Virginia in 2014,” Houck said. Last year, three NCCC teams assisted with Boy Scout Community Service Initiative projects at the MOC, Houck said. Prior to 2013, six teams helped with flood cleanup, building the Tater Hill picnic pavilion, and constructing the MOC’s outdoor stage and Jack Feller Information Center.

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April 14, 2014

Free garden plots available for disabled individuals By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

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Free garden spaces are being made available to physically-challenged individuals at the Mullens Opportunity Center, in conjunction with the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), on a first-come, first-serve basis. Only a limited number of the small garden spots are available to those with such disabilities as arthritis, respiratory illnesses, among other physical limitations. Ergonomic tools will also be available for the physically-challenged gardeners, according to Charlene Cook, project director. Over the past few years, RAIL has sponsored multiple community gardens at the center, Cook said. “This year, we are making an extra effort to support physically-challenged persons,” she noted. “You may have COPD, or other chronic illnesses, and would like to plant a garden. We welcome you to the MOC.” Cook, with the Wyoming County Diabetes Coalition Healthy Lifestyle Program, and Faron Lucas, Experience Works, will co-direct the project. “We have raised beds and regular gardening spaces available with concrete walkway accessibility to accommodate gardeners with physical limitations,” she noted. The mission of RAIL is to improve life quality for families living in the coalfields and the Healthy Lifestyle program is an important component in that pursuit, Cook said.  “RAIL is managed by the people and for the residents in the coalfields, and we look to those that have a need to participate in the process. “Dealing with those who are plagued with arthritis would be a new specialized target, but we feel a good place to help bring comfort to those who suffer with joint pain,” she said.

For more information or to reserve a space, phone 304-294-6188.

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October 28, 2013

New roadside park being constructed By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Park 1

NEW RICHMOND — Work on a new roadside park, between Mullens and Pineville, is well under way, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

Creating the Guyandotte River Roadside Park/Outdoor Educational Center began in July as part of the Boy Scouts’ community service projects. With fires blazing and the sounds of tools shattering the riverside oasis, a team of students and staff from Butler University, in Indianapolis, Ind., completed three days of work, Oct. 17-19, clearing a picnic area and a walking trail that loops the park, Houck said. With the help of local volunteers, the students cut brush and trees, removed trash, constructed steps along the trail and placed picnic tables. The three-acre site, leased from Pocahontas Land, will be an engaging stop for travelers along the Coal Heritage Trail, Houck believes. “People traveling need a place to stop,” Houck noted. “This is such a beautiful spot; it’s a wonderful roadside park. “It’s just off the highway. “Everything will be handicap-accessible. “You will be able to put a canoe in the river here,” he added. “You’ll be able to watch the train from here. The train will be something that makes the park unique.” The picnic area sits atop a knoll overlooking the trail, the Guyandotte River as well as W. Va. 10/16. Additionally, Houck wants to create an outdoor classroom for students. Wyoming County East High School sits only half-a-mile away. “It would be an easy walk from the school,” Houck noted. He said students could conduct water testing, explore aquatic life, and study the environment. “Can you imagine a student who wouldn’t rather be here than the classroom?” asked Ann Pauley, of Harrisburg. Pauley is one of several retired professionals who serve as RAIL volunteers. She has written grants and completed other projects, Houck said. Thus far, Houck has completed work on the new park with volunteer labor, including Gary Runion and Wayne Compton, both of Mullens.

“They do all kinds of work for RAIL,” Houck explained. Darren Lusk will soon move in equipment to level the parking area. “We couldn’t do any of this without our volunteers,” Houck emphasized. The only cost will be $2,000 for guardrails, he said. The Butler students spent one entire day working in the rain, Pauley said. “They were wet and muddy; I didn’t hear any complaining,” she said. “We are thrilled to be in your community,” said Rachel Hahn, one of the student volunteers. “It’s been a joy. We hope everyone comes out to enjoy the Guyandotte River Park.” “It’s exciting to see the trail finished,” added Josh Etchberger, also one of the students. The students spent their fall break completing the work, staying in the Mullens Opportunity Center. Alex Petersen, also one of the student volunteers, has spent his last three autumn breaks doing volunteer work at similar locations. He said the students take such community service projects very seriously. “It’s one of the most powerful experiences,” Petersen emphasized.

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July 29, 2013

California troop, AmeriCorps volunteers team up in Mullens

By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

MULLENS —Moving in tandem, Boy Scout Troop D207, of California, worked alongside an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team at the Mullens Opportunity Center Tuesday.

The Scouts were building picnic tables that will be placed at the campsites, and the picnic areas, behind the center.

While the NCCC members assisted with the picnic table project, they also wheeled wheelbarrows of cement to complete a 120-foot handicap ramp that will allow visitors access to the Guyandotte River, which flows behind what was once the grade school building in Mullens.

Visitors with physical limitations may use their wheelchairs to fish, to picnic, or just sit by the water, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

The complete campground project has been in the making for nearly two years and now boasts 10 sites with electricity, water, and sewage services, Houck said.

Three primitive camp sites will sit on the banks of the river, he said.

Additionally, the new ramp provides easy access to the Guyandotte and a hiking trail is also under construction.

“Local people are taking advantage of this already,” Houck said of the campground. “We’ve had some who’ve rented a month at a time.”

Nearly 200 Scouts have participated and signed the “RAIL board,” with every state represented on the board.

“Everybody that works on this project signs the board,” Houck emphasized.

He also noted that AmeriCorps NCCC teams from years past have signed the various projects that have added to the numerous services offered at the MOC, including the outdoor stage for community events and the museum exhibiting the area’s coal and rail history.

Additionally, the Scouts worked to create river access on state Rt. 10, between Mullens and Pineville, on a three-acre roadside park that will be developed by RAIL, Houck noted.

Houck lauded his volunteers, most notably Gary Runion, who designed all the projects at the center and supervised construction.

He also complimented Charlene Cook, who works with all the teams, the volunteers, and mans the center daily.

“We’ve got about 35 volunteers and they all do a fantastic job,” Houck emphasized.

Houck said none of the projects would have been possible without the assistance of the AmeriCorps teams and volunteers.

“There’s no way we would have finished these projects without the help of the Scouts,” he said.

Image result for rural appalachian improvement league handicap ramp

January 28, 2013

Volunteers spruce up church at Tams

By C.V. Moore Register-Herald Reporter

It’s midmorning, and a group of volunteers pauses its vacuuming and dusting to listen to a song of praise from the pulpit of New Salem Baptist Church in Tams. “I feel good, good, good down in my soul,” sings Queen Schoolfield, born and raised in Tams and a member of church ever since she was a little girl. Back in those days, New Salem was full to brimming every Sunday. So was Tams. Now, the congregation has dwindled to about a dozen regulars, and the church is the only building left standing in the abandoned coal camp. But community members hope to breathe new life into this spot as a cultural heritage site. Backing Schoolfield up in the choir are volunteers of all ages who are participating in the yearly Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. On Monday, the Appalachian Coal Country Team worked alongside the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s (RAIL) youth program to clean up the church, and an African American cemetery up the road. As he videotaped the performance, Dewey Houck, president of RAIL, said, “Coalfield history is important to us, and this is definitely a part of it.” When the hymns are over, it’s back to work. Wobbling on a ladder, a group of young people struggled to dismantle a ceiling light and rid it of dead insects. “I’m so happy they’re cleaning those lights,” said Schoolfield. “Thank the Lord.” There’s no question that New Salem is in need of some TLC, but it has obviously been well-loved by generations of congregants. Built in 1922, it served the black community of Tams through the heyday of coal mining in the Winding Gulf Coalfield of Raleigh County. Flanked by old portraits of its earliest pastors, its pulpit rises slightly above dozens of peach-colored pews. The late morning winter sunshine streams through its antique rolled glass windows, shaped in gothic arches. It strikes on old hymnals, fans printed with images of a black Jesus and plaques honoring congregants who have passed away. “In Loving Memory of Ivory Wiley Lavender,” reads one. “She was like Queenie. If you got around her, you got a blessing,” said Tom Cox of Stotesbury, a town right up the road. Cox is one of the leaders in the effort to restore historic structures along the Coal Heritage Trail and present them to visitors. As a boy, he sold loads of coal to area households, getting to know quite a few people in the Winding Gulf in the process. “This is the life of a coal camp, the church,” he said. “When we were kids, life revolved around the church, and that lifestyle is drying up. If we don’t save these structures, there’s a way of life that’s leaving here.” Like many of the coal towns around it, Tams has a rich history that lives on mostly in memory and a few photographs, since its abandonment in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1909 by the coal baron W.P. Tams, owner of The Gulf Smokeless Coal Co., its segregated neighborhoods included Upper Tams for African Americans and Hunk Hill for the foreign-born. Every house was painted white with green trim. “People often think West Virginia is an ethnically homogenous place, and this is one of the last physical relics in the Winding Gulf that is proof that that story isn’t entirely true,” said Jack Seitz, volunteer field coordinator for the Appalachian Coal Country Team. “I think it’s neat and important that it challenges that stereotype.” New Salem was one of two black churches in town; the three white churches were Baptist, Methodist and Catholic. After a 10-year community effort, New Salem will finally get a new roof this spring. There are plans to repaint as well. But it still needs running water, and even paying utility bills is a struggle. For years, Schoolfield has sold hot dogs and baked goods on the street in Beckley to keep the building heated. RAIL has a vision to turn places like New Salem Baptist Church into a basis for cultural tourism in southern West Virginia. They’d like to see the church on the National Register of Historic Places. They hope to restore the church at Wyco as a repository for coalfields history. They want to catalog and record coal camp culture by those who lived it. They see the Winding Gulf and its relics as a “Gateway to the Southern West Virginia Coalfields” on the Coal Heritage Trail. The trail includes 187 miles of “scenic industrial heritage” through a five-county region that reflects a “legacy of working-class culture, industrial might, racial and ethnic diversity,” according to trail promoters. “We’ve got to protect and restore our heritage to build a new economy,” said Seitz. ATV trails from nearby Burning Rock Off Road Park wind right past New Salem. That’s one market to be tapped, said Houck. Another are the people who left the coalfields when the industry went bust. “You’d be surprised the number of people in the summer who return here. They show up in my driveway looking for help finding this or that,” said Cox. “They are a part of our history and if we’re going to attract visitors to our community to see what it was like 50 years ago at the height of the coal boom, then we’ve got to preserve these churches,” said Houck. But the group says it needs more support to make it work, whether in the form of cash donations or additional volunteer organizers. They want to create the Coal Heritage Trail Coalition of Volunteers for Community Enrichment to see the organization’s goals through to completion. But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, they had hands enough at least to spiff up New Salem and also clean up the abandoned St. Johns Church cemetery for the African American coal camp at Stotesbury. Those buried at St. Johns include black veterans from World War I. At least one served with the 803 Pioneer Infantry Battalion, as reflected on a gravestone. Local residents want to preserve the foundation and corner stone of the church; put up a memorial to African American miners; and dedicate the cemetery to WWI African American veterans. Daniels resident Glenda Apple showed up in Tams to volunteer after searching for a nearby project on the Day of Service’s official website. “When I saw what the project was, I thought it was very important for the area. I really think it’s worthwhile,” she said. Right away, Houck began recruiting her to become more deeply involved in the preservation work his organization wants to accomplish. Meanwhile, Tyler Stafford, a student at Wyoming County East High School, did janitorial duty in the church sanctuary. Stafford is a part of the West Virginia Coalfields Communities Youth Corps, RAIL’s youth program for high school students. They work 18 hours a week after school on various community development projects. They get a paycheck, experience and mentorship. “I’ve met a lot of people and made new friends,” said Stafford. “It’s fun.” The youth program’s director, Charlene Cook, said it teaches students a work ethic that will come in handy later. “Your future wives will thank me,” she told two teenage boys running a sweeper in the church basement. One room over, Schoolfield heats up water for cleaning. One day she hopes for a water hookup at the church, but for now she uses jugs that were purchased and hauled in. “I feel like a million dollars,” she says. For more information on the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s efforts to restore relics at Tams, Stotesbury and other coalfield towns, visit, send an e-mail to, or call 304-294-6188.

Tams church