VISTAs of West Virginia: Michaela Collins Takes Her Love of Appalachia’s Land from Southeastern Ohio to West Virginia

Michaela Collins, AmeriCorps VISTA, Friends of Deckers Creek

West Virginia is known for its unparalleled scenery and majestic natural beauty. Millions of tourists come from around the nation to bask in the Mountain State’s parks and adventure along its many rivers, hills, and mountaintops. So many West Virginia communities depend on recreational tourism and other communities are tapping into the natural resources around them to bring recreational tourism to their economies.

Towns in close proximity to the ever-expanding Hatfield McCoy Trail Systems and communities banding together through the Monongalia Forest Towns Partnership are great examples of the new interest in revitalizing recreational tourism. Preserving the environment that these tourists are attracted to is an essential part of communities finding success, and Michaela Collins is an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) spending a year of service in Morgantown with Friends of Deckers Creek (FODC) doing just that.

Michaela grew up in a small community in Southeastern Ohio. Her love for Appalachia runs deep. As a native from the area, she has always been connected into and interested in the land and natural beauty here. Michaela, who is the Environmental Education and Outreach VISTA with FODC, dedicated her education, and now her life’s work, to the land. That is why this VISTA opportunity spoke to her.

“I wanted to work in West Virginia because I have a deep love for Appalachia,” Michaela, a West Virginia University graduate, affectionately explains about her work. 

She adds: “At the end of the day, no matter who you are, we are all accountable for the state of our environment and natural resources so to see that environmental ethic come out in such a representative group of people is amazing.”

Michaela has experienced moments of great community pride and touching support during her time with Friends of Deckers Creek (FODC). Her recent Make It Shine event brought more than 100 people to the creek to spend the day cleaning up trash. Seeing the outpouring of support from the community moved Michaela and the volunteers with FODC. She believes strongly in the importance of caring for the environment in a way that benefits the people who live in it and, in turn, benefits the health of those people.

“As a VISTA with FODC, I get to grow in my people- and community-building skills by translating my environmental science knowledge into something anyone and everyone can understand and enjoy,” Michaela says about the role of the environment on people’s overall health. “Science is ultimately irrelevant unless you can find a way to relate it to people, and all work in environmental science is ultimately related to people – the people who live in and rely on their environment. …I bring my knowledge and my passion for the outdoors to my role as a VISTA, which guides me in furthering FODC’s mission.”

In working specifically with FODC, Michaela is able to flex her knowledge about watershed issues and freshwater ecology. She brings her background to her role as she works to heal Deckers Creek from acid mine drainage, which is the biggest contributor to pollution in that waterway. As Michaela explains, acid mine drainage is detrimental to the health of the creek and any people and animals that rely on the creek. The acid mine drainage drops the pH level of the water to 2 while filling the creek with toxic heavy metals, which can lead to lead contamination of drinking water. One of the leading causes of this type of pollution is contaminants seeping from mines abandoned before the Clean Water Act of 1972.

“In talking with community members on a day-to-day basis, all of these issues come into play in their everyday lives,’ Michaela recalls about her year in service to FDOC. “They may not be thinking of it on a large scale like the economic and climate impacts, but their individual struggles of health, opportunity, and poverty are what make up those larger-scale issues – which is where my role as a VISTA comes in. Bringing the education and tools of the ‘big picture’ to the individual level, and giving them the opportunity to make a change in their communities.”

Michaela sees hope for West Virginia’s land and its people. During her time as a VISTA, she has witnessed a community working together to clean up their local waterway and to create increased health and quality of life for everyone in the area. 

“We’re having success in maintaining our current treatment systems and working with landowners in the community to get new sites built, expanding our capacity to treat acid mine drainage. The other pollutants that impact the watershed are litter, sewage, and erosion/runoff. On that front, we’re having success in building relationships with city officials and local engineering firms, making long-term plans to reduce sewage and erosion inputs and help control litter.”

Michaela is hopeful that more young people will get involved in the environmental cleanup efforts happening around the state. The beauty of the state is unparalleled and attracts tourists from across the nation to enjoy what makes West Virginia so Wild and Wonderful.

“Specifically in the Appalachian region, I believe it is important for young people to understand the true uniqueness of this region,” Michaela says. “The composition of plants, animals and all things in between that exists right where you are doesn’t exist anywhere else on Earth. It’s interwoven into our culture, our history and our beings – so nurturing strong environmental ethics in younger – and all – generations is more important than words can truly say.”

The West Virginia Development Hub hosts AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) members in communities participating in our coaching programs as well as in partnership with organizations around the state. The Hub currently has VISTA sub-sites  in Fairmont, Morgantown, Rainelle, Clarksburg, Elkins, and other communities. The VISTA program was founded in 1965 and is an anti-poverty program providing needed resources to nonprofit organizations and public agencies to help lift communities out of poverty. The VISTA program places volunteers 18 years or older into communities where they perform a year of full-time volunteer service.

In the VISTAs of West Virginia series, you’ll learn more about the VISTAs working in Hub communities uplifting economic and community development teams around the state.

Interested in becoming a VISTA? Check out current opportunities through The Hub »

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For too long, who and what it means to be a West Virginian has been defined for us. It’s time to redefine the Mountain State in our own words and in the eyes of the world. West Virginia can be anything we want it to be – let’s redefine it together.

Parsons

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Message from our Executive Leadership Team

Fifteen years ago, stakeholders building up local communities and economies in West Virginia convened to map a coordinated strategy to systemically grow community economic development activity in the state. From the shared vision and collaborative leadership of dozens of strategic partners across the state, the WV Community Development Hub was born.

Since that time, The Hub has grown into the anchor community development organization serving West Virginia. We have built upon the original vision to create a method for rural, community-led development strategies that is uniquely tailored to the needs and opportunities of our state.

As we have grown and developed a proven model for success, our partnerships with community and economic development practitioners, funders, and committed West Virginia residents have been foundational to every element of our work.

Over the past two years, the team at The Hub has adapted to the unprecedented challenges our communities have faced during the pandemic by leaning into our core strengths to deepen our impact. The Hub remains committed to tackling persistent challenges, and we have focused our attention on the most impactful elements of our work.

We are supporting community leaders to advance their visions for local development, creating new pathways for engagement and leadership growth through our virtual training platform, and leading strategies that lift up voices of community leaders to move forward solutions to long-held challenges to growth.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that nothing about the future is set in stone. While the coming year may present enormous opportunities for advancement in our state, they will also inevitably require significant capacity building, shared strategies that are grounded in trust-based partnerships, and extended efforts to support the leadership development of individuals and organizations who have been asked to do more during a time of extreme stress and strain.

The services that anchor organizations like The Hub provide are even more critical in this time, and we expect our work to scale significantly in the coming years ahead.

We look forward to continuing to do the work of putting into action the vision and the shared strategies envisioned by that core group of community economic development practitioners and funders fifteen years ago.

In Continued Accompaniment,

– WV Community Development Hub
Executive Leadership Team

Stephanie Tyree

Executive Director

Amanda Workman Scott

Director of Community Engagement

Emma Pepper

Director of Strategic Network Communications

Katie Loudin

Director of Strategic Development

Montgomery

Residents participated in the Cultivate WV program to kickstart community and economy building. Read their community case study.

Smithers

Residents participated in the Cultivate WV program to kickstart community and economy building. Read their community case study.

Kingwood

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Lewis County

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future.

Meadow River Valley Region

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Read their community case study.

Monticello Neighborhood of Clarksburg

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Watch their community documentary.

New Martinsville

Residents participated in the Blueprint Communities* program to engage their neighbors and co-create strategic plans for their future. Read their community case study.

Systemic Change

2021 became a time period of catalytic potential as we saw years of investment into our core strategies to enact systemic change yield new results. Our strategic focus areas include policy, communications, and supporting the community economic development system in leveraging unique financing opportunities such as the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Initiative and Opportunity Zones.

In addition, through our strategic policy support role within the Abandoned Properties Coalition, The Hub successfully advanced two key objectives: the creation of a statewide land bank at the West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation and extension of the state’s Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit. 

Through the Opportunity Appalachia program, 6 catalytic community projects located in WV-based Opportunity Zones received $250,000 for pre-development technical assistance. Three projects received additional private funding as a result of program participation.

Community Coaching

In 2021, we accompanied 16 communities through our in-depth, professional coaching programs. In addition to leaning into coaching and financing opportunities offered through these programs, participating communities leveraged an additional $2.8 million in funding on their own for community economic development projects. While participating in our entry-level coaching program, Cultivate WV, Montgomery and Smithers realized momentum-building success through access to $40,000 in seed funding for projects like farmers markets, public art, wayfinding, community events, and development of a trail system.

Six communities, Lewis County, Kingwood, Meadow River Valley, Monticello neighborhood in Clarksburg, New Martinsville and Parsons, graduated the intermediate planning program Blueprint Communities* with strategic plans in place. We also launched a new round of HubCAP, our flagship community economic development program, in six towns located in the Monongahela National Forest region: Cowen, Franklin, White Sulphur Springs, Elkins, Marlinton, and Petersburg.

Elkins

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies. 

A core team led by Woodlands Development Group also participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Franklin

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Marlinton

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Petersburg

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

White Sulphur Springs

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies.

Charleston

A core team led by Crawford Holdings, LLC participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Huntington

Core teams led by Thundercloud, Inc. and the City of Huntington participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support community development projects located in Opportunity Zones.

Grafton

A core team led by Unleash Tygart, Inc participated in Opportunity Appalachia, receiving technical assistance to support a community development project located in an Opportunity Zone.

Leadership Development

As hundreds of people began to engage in our virtual training activities in 2020, we saw a critical opportunity to scale and deepen our impact. This year, The Hub team developed an accessible, virtual platform with options for self-guided and group learning activities as well as professional coaching.

Kickstart Communities is now the crux of our efforts to bring new people into the work and grow their leadership. These activities now form the foundational stages of a Community Leadership Development Pipeline to move motivated residents from seeing the challenges in their communities to proactively collaborating to resolve them.

Cowen

Residents participated in round 4 of The Hub’s capstone Communities of Achievement program with a focus on building local recreational economies. Read their community case study.