Can a little play change a community? These folks think so.

I moved to the small town of Fayetteville, WV, 3 years ago, largely because of its outdoor recreation: rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking and hiking.

I’m not the only one; there are hundreds of others who moved here for those some reasons. Walk down the streets of Fayetteville or into any local coffeeshop or restaurant, and you’ll be struck by the sheer amount of fit and happy locals, energetically talking about their most recent adventures in this wild, wonderful landscape.

Raleigh 4-H 5K picIt’s not just people who live here, either. Tourism is West Virginia’s 2nd largest industry.  Thousands of people come from out-of-state every weekend, and largely for outdoor, active recreation.

But our state also ranks second-highest in obesity and heart disease rates in the nation. This dichotomy is striking and disturbing. And it begs the question: can outdoor recreation help?  

Will people be happier if they heed Mom’s advice, and “go outside and play?” I don’t think it’s coincidence that some of the happiest and healthiest states in the nation, Utah and Colorado, have strong cultures of outdoor activity.

For the last 2 years, a small non-profit in Beckley, Active Southern West Virginia (ActiveSWV) has been introducing simple, healthy outdoor exercise at a grassroots, community level.

Active SWV Executive Director Melanie Seiler, who has lived and recreated in Fayette County for most of her life, truly believes that active living makes a difference.  

“You see it everywhere here,” she explains.  “2 guys can make the same salary, live in the same size house, the same neighborhood. One gets outside all the time and is happy, healthy and energetic. The other stays inside, and is miserable.”

Of course, some folks may see sports like climbing, rafting and mountain biking as something wealthy, city-dwellers come here to do. Not to mention the fact some people think these are “extreme” sports. That’s why ActiveSWV focuses on what Seiler calls “soft adventure,” and “free, family-focused activities” like fun 5k races, youth running clubs, cycling.

To help promote these activities on a local level, ActiveSWV’s trains Community Captains— “mentor leaders who will encourage their friends and neighbors to be more active.

 “2 guys can make the same salary, live in the same size house, the same neighborhood. One gets outside all the time and is happy, healthy and energetic. The other stays inside, and is miserable.”

Encouraging folks to get outside is nothing new. Plenty of school sports teams and activity clubs have been doing this for a while, but the mission of ActiveSWV is as unique and special as the place it serves. There are no other comparable organizations in WV.

Despite its newness, ActiveSWV has accomplished a lot in the last 2 years, taking full advantage of the facilities and activities that already exist here. They set up tons of activities with local schools. They’ve even worked with the Boy Scouts of America’s nearby Summit-Bechtel Reserve on youth mountain biking programs.  

For the summer and fall of 2016, they have a few more specific events planned.  

  • In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the completion of Summersville Dam, ActiveSWV will have a family-friendly triathlon Aug. 20. The 3.5-mile bike ride, 2.2-mile run and 1-mile paddle is not quite on the level of an Ironman, but will be good, family fun.  
  • On Bridge Day in September, they will have a morning 5k race, including a run across the New River Gorge Bridge

There’s much more to do over the long term, though. ActiveSWV’s trail coordinator Andy Davis is working on getting bike lanes and more pedestrian trails in the town of Mt. Hope. Southern West Virginia already has lots of rail trails— old railroad grades that have been turned into gravel biking and hiking paths— but there is potential for hundreds of miles more.

Ultimately, Seiler said that Southern West Virginians “deserve an attractive and vibrant place to live where safe opportunities to walk, run, dance, bike and be active abound.”  

Active SWV paddleboarding

We’re already on our way there, by virtue of our amazing natural environment and our state and National Parks. But we can do more, just by showing our community the opportunities in their own backyard.  

I teach high school. Some of my disgruntled students who want nothing more than to get out of their home state have a hard time believing that I would have consciously chosen to live here. I have a hard time believing that they have no idea what sorts of outdoor recreation they are living next to.

Southern West Virginia has the same potential as Boulder, Colorado, or Bend, Oregon— cities that attract businesses and employers largely because of their outdoor recreational resources.  But unlike Boulder, Bend, and many other adventure towns out West, we’ve still got a low cost of living, few crowds and the most welcoming folks you’ll ever meet.

Who knows where Southern West Virginia will be 20 or 30 years down the road?  Hopefully the perception that outdoor adventure recreation is only for “come heres” instead of “from heres” will continue to erode.  

Seiler wants ActiveSWV to integrate outdoor recreation with local businesses, schools, faith-based organizations and community clubs. They’re looking at outdoor activities that are more interpretive, historical or skills-based. Perhaps local kids who got their start with ActiveSWV running clubs will stay here and attend WVU tech in Beckley— which is starting its own outdoor recreation program— and further integrate our trails, cliffs and rivers into their lives.

It can all start with this small non-profit, asking folks to get outside to play.

Keep up with Active SWV > 


by Paul Nelson