When Amber Atkinson graduated from River View High School, she told her husband she wanted to find something meaningful to do — “something that drew me in,” she said. Now, two years later, each time the Bradshaw native travels through McDowell County, she’s filled with a sense of pride.
“We get to look around and see what we’ve done here, what we’ve helped change and fix,” Atkinson said. “In 20 years, when my kids are grown, someone is going to take a hiking trail down here or climb some [rock] steps, and I’ll be able to say I helped make that happen. That’s so cool.”
On Friday afternoon, Atkinson, who is 20 years old, was one of more than 200 AmeriCorps volunteers who came together at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, formerly known as the Civic Center, to be sworn in to serve West Virginia for the next year. Deployed to work with more than a dozen programs throughout the state, the 2018-19 members are about an even mix of West Virginia natives and out-of-state volunteers who come to the Mountain State to work on specific projects that caught their interest, said Dana Bryant, communications coordinator for Volunteer West Virginia.
The ceremony followed a three-day intensive training program for the volunteers and included remarks from representatives for Gov. Jim Justice and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as well as from several AmeriCorps members. A keynote speech was given by Chester Spellman, director of AmeriCorps State and National.
Friday’s swearing-in was Atkinson’s third with the program. For the past two years, she has worked with the organization’s Twin Branch program, located in McDowell and Wyoming counties. Volunteers like Atkinson spend their days clearing out hiking trails, taking water samples from streams and rivers, developing community gardens and working on beautifying the counties through the Citizens Conservation Corps.
Dorothy Horne, director of the Citizens Conservation Corps’ Twin Branch Adventure Facility, said the coalfields program will host 14 AmeriCorps volunteers in the upcoming year — 10 from McDowell County and four from Wyoming County. The program is in its eighth year, and while it was a struggle at first to get volunteers, Horne said they have benefited from word spreading of their efforts in the community.
In return for their year of service, AmeriCorps volunteers receive living stipends, health insurance, career development tools and a monetary “education award” that can be used to help pay for college or student loan debt.
These opportunities can be especially important for those in areas like McDowell, Atkinson said, where financial or family situations can present challenges for people interested in pursuing higher education or giving back to their community.
“It helps us when we help people,” said Ashlynn Blevins, a Bradshaw native who was sworn in for AmeriCorps service for her first time on Friday.
While the program helps the individuals who participate, the relationship between West Virginia and AmeriCorps is a mutually beneficial one, as well. In 2018, West Virginia produced more AmeriCorps volunteers per capita than any other state. More than $12 million was invested into the state for service projects.
In addition to all the benefits they can receive, volunteers who come here get to walk away knowing they made a difference in West Virginia, Bryant said, a place that can seem to sometimes be known for nothing but its issues.
“People come here and they find that the people are so friendly and welcoming, and there is a lot of accessibility to make a change,” Bryant said. “It’s one thing to look at challenges and problems around you, but it’s another to help try and do something about them. That’s what people in this program are doing.”