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California dreaming in the Mountain State

By Staff | Jun 30, 2011

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia.” It’s a phrase emblazoned on t-shirts, decals, signs throughout the mountain state and in the minds of those who call that 35th state their home. But for a group of high school students from California who traveled through the area recently, it’s a motto that justly represents the setting of an unforgettable educational experience that “immersed” them in the Appalachian culture.

Beth Dale, an Americorps VISTA Leader from Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Inistitute, headed the effort which brought a group of students to Tyler County. Deemed a “service immersion trip” by WJU, the project focused on direct service to low-income communities of Appalachia and offered participants an opportunity to work with a community partner organization.

Dale explained, “The Appalachian Institute strives to educate people from around the country on the uniqueness of Appalachia through service, educational activities, and cultural components. The students worked every day in Marshall, Wetzel, and Tyler County on various service projects. They also learned about environmental and health care issues, while experiencing WV’s culture by visiting Charleston’s Cultural Museum and attending a folk concert. The students will take the knowledge they have gained and educate others in their home states to encourage advocacy and pride in the Appalachian region”.

The students touring Tyler County spent the day with Tom Cooper, director of the Office of Emergency Management, aiding him with clean-up efforts and painting projects. “They were good workers,” Cooper said of the group.

“They learned how to work and they have learned that sweat won’t hurt them,” he joked. “But it’s been good for them and good for us.”

Cooper also introduced the group to the Appalachian culture courtesy of a tour of Tyler County. For many, the gesture served as a culture shock.

When asked to describe to area, the students called Tyler County, “Very peaceful,” and “small.” They describe the culture as “simple.”

Kianuna Phillips, a student at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., said, “It’s spread out. I don’t have a back yard where I live.”

The students described the people as “friendly.”

While touring the county, Cooper treated the students to lunch at Tyler Consolidated High School where they were introduced to another Appalachian treat – pepperoni rolls.

“This school was paid for through an additional levy,” Cooper explained to the group. “People in this area take care to ensure our students receive a good education.”

Jake Grant commented, “No one (where I’m from) would agree to pay more money for a school.”

The students also remarked on the level of pride exuded by the community.

“Could you see yourself living here?” Cooper asked.

The overwhelming marority laughed and shook their heads. Phillips added, “I appreciate what the area has to offer. But I prefer being in a place where no one knows me. I would never truly be satisifed. I’d always want to be in California.”

The group visiting Tyler County included Midori Portrillo, Jessica Reynolds, Karin Cheng, Kara Vane, Sarah Crowley, Katrina Swarthout, Marie Chetcuti, Kiauana Phillips, Jake Grant, and high school counselor Katie Grace Kaltsas.

The Appalachian Institute contues to look for new avenues of service for these groups. Anyone with a need for college and high school aged volunteers should contact the Appalachian Institute at 304-243-6243 or mcassidy@wju.edu.