Health Screening Planned in Wyoming County August 27th 2021

The Mullens Opportunity Center in collaboration with South Central Educational Development, Inc., will host the “Making Health Happen” Health-Screening Event on Friday, Aug. 27, at the Mullens Opportunity Center, 300 Front St., Mullens, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Wyoming County Health Screening will offer Covid-19 vaccines, blood pressure checks, BMI, diabetes screenings, Hepatitis C screenings, HIV testing, and giveaways. Tug River Clinic will provide its Mobile Health Unit for additional screenings. The LUCAS Lung Cancer Screening tractor-trailer will be available for lung cancer screenings; for this screening, a doctor’s order and insurance pre-approval is needed; contact Tug River at 304-732-7069 or 304-862-2588 for additional information.

Snacks and refreshments will be provided.

For more information or a vendor application, contact South Central Educational Development, Inc., 304-325-6105 or email or, or the Mullens Opportunity Center, or Click the link to check out our event!!

Buddy Allen and the Cheat River Band will perform at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC) Outdoor Theater during a Fourth of July Celebration. The free concert will begin at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 4, at the MOC. Buddy Allen and the Cheat River band are a community favorite, according to event organizer Dewey Houck, RAIL president. The free concert is sponsored by Shentel. All celebration events are free to the public, Houck noted. The celebration begins at 4 p.m. at the MOC with free hot dogs and other treats provided by Judy Riffe and the Black Lung Support Association. Riffe also created a quilt, dedicated to coal miners suffering from Black Lung, to be raffled off during the event. The drawing winner will be announced Sunday at 7 p.m. on the MOC stage during the concert intermission. All proceeds from the drawing will go to the Black Lung Support Association for those in need to get legal services in order to obtain Black Lung benefits, according to Riffe. Her husband, Bernard, lost his life due to Black Lung.

“Many quilting enthusiasts consider the quilt a work of art that has a special meaning for those that have lost a loved one to Black Lung,” Houck said. “Surely, Judy’s husband Bernard, who lost his life suffering from Black Lung, is embedded somewhere in the quilt design. “The first 100 people to arrive for the concert and hot dogs will receive a stars and stripes hat and waving flag. Fourth of July decorations and favors are being provided by the Mullens Area Chamber of Commerce. Christy Seaton and the Mullens City Commission are coordinating a parade that will include wagons, bikes, ATVs, tractors, and other means of transportation. “Cars and other trucks are not allowed, but the pigs and goats seen recently around town will be welcome,” Houck joked. Parade line-up will begin Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at Mullens Middle School. Beginning at 5 p.m. at the middle school, the parade will end at the MOC. Seaton also announced a Screaming Eagles Costume Contest. Those wearing the craziest patriotic costumes will be awarded prizes. The concert will end about 8:30 p.m., followed by a bonfire and marshmallow roast.

RHODELL – Stonecoal Junction will soon boast the first kayak/canoe launch site on the 160-mile Guyandotte River Trail, one of six created by the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL). The 5.88-acre roadside park, near the Wyoming/Raleigh County border, is being developed by RAIL in conjunction with West Virginia University’s Fulcrum Project and the Coal Heritage Highway Authority. The park fronts on the Coal Heritage Trail and at the beginning of the Guyandotte River Trail, which extends 160 miles downstream to the Ohio River, near Huntington, explained Dewey Houck, RAIL president. Stonecoal Creek and Winding Gulf Branch come together at Stonecoal Junction to form the Guyandotte River headwaters. The new park’s center feature will be a kayak/canoe launch onto the Guyandotte. Creating the launch point will be phase three in creating the park. Future phases include the construction of a pavilion and picnic areas, among other projects.

“RAIL has set its goal of cleaning up and marketing the Guyandotte River and Coal Heritage Trail as a baseline for developing tourism and enhancing economic development,” Houck said. “The plan, in part, is to reestablish the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association and work toward removing dilapidated houses and trash along the Coal Heritage Trail. “What we have discovered is that, if we clean up a site, the locals take ownership and keep it clean,” Houck said. As an indication of that, the park site was initially cleaned up last fall. At that time, volunteers removed tons of trash and debris. On Friday, however, volunteers removed little more than one trash bag of garbage. The WVU Fulcrum Project is a program that gives landscape architectural design students real world training, while they work with local groups to design, plan, and help develop projects focused on community planning and development that encompass environmental management.

The students have been divided into eight groups who are working with communities across the state, explained Ryan Blair, a WVU Davis College graduate student coordinating the park project. Blair and Lexi Yost, also a Fulcrum Project student, will be working to create a cohesive design for the park – after working on-site, collecting feedback and ideas from Houck and others, as well as getting input from the entire group in Morgantown. The team will return in December to provide the final design proposal, along with technical documents, incorporating visualization for the project’s potential in the community’s development, Blair noted, which in turn may help to obtain funding for the park. “This is the gateway to existing coalfields,” Blair said, noting the importance of the coal and rail histories of the area in the park design.

Also, on Friday, volunteers created a flower bed and a parking area, spread stone, and created an overlook above the adjoining 1.5-acre pond, which is also part of the six-acre park.

Volunteers pitch in to clear off future home of community park at Stonecoal Junction

By Anna Saunders -October 23, 2020 RALEIGH COUNTY, WV (WOAY)

 RHODELL-The Rural Appalachian Improvement League, otherwise known as RAIL, is a nonprofit located in Mullens, and they were gifted a six-acre piece of property known as the Stonecoal Junction site from the Raleigh County Commission.
They plan to use the property to create a community park and kayak launch and hosted a work day on Friday to continue clearing the land. “We want this to be a a part of the community,” RAIL President Dewey Houck said. 
The property is located between Rhodell and Amigo near the county lines of Wyoming and Raleigh on Route 16.
The kayak launch they plan to install will also be the beginning of kayak put-in sites along the Guyandotte River Water Trail.

RAIL has enlisted the help of other organizations like the National Coal Heritage Highway and the WVU Fulcrum Project, a new initiative bringing in students from the landscape architecture program to help with the design and planning stages. 
Ryan Blair is a graduate research assistant with the program and attended the work day to see the property.
“What we hope to provide is graphics and documentations to help these communities eventually potentially apply for funding for some of these projects,” Blair said. “Of course we can’t provide the funding and we can’t provide official technical documents so what we’ll be able to provide is big ideas for the site. “Students, like senior Alexis Yost, will continue to visit the site throughout the semester.

“This is the point where we’re actually able to come to sites and see our sites potentially come to fruition, and also as a native of Southern West Virginia, with a lot of family ties in coal history this project specifically has so much potential for eco-tourism,” she said.  With the help of volunteers and programs, RAIL will be able to turn this once deserted property that used to be a hub for coal community activities into something the entire community can use once again. 
“The resources are there. What it takes to maintain these parks and build these parks is a central location that can pull these resources together and make good stuff happen,” Houck said. 
If you would like to get involved in this project or some of their others, you can head over to RAIL’s website by clicking here

Groups working to transform community park

Wyoming County Reporter Mary Catherine Brooks-Dewey Houck, standing far left, RAIL president, talks with area volunteers and a work team from the College of William and Mary. Volunteers and the college students were clearing brush and trash from a new six-acre community park near the Wyoming County line. Volunteers clear brush and trash last week from the new Guyandotte River Headwaters Boat Launch and Park, near Rhodell, at Stonecoal Junction. The site will provide the first kayak/canoe launch location for the 160-mile Guyandotte River Trail.

Working with several government agencies and other organizations, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) board members are still considering the best uses for the new Guyandotte River Headwaters Boat Launch and Park, near Rhodell, at Stonecoal Junction. Last week, a work team from the College of William and Mary, several area volunteers, and RAIL board members helped clear brush and trash from the six-acre site, opening the new community park to numerous possibilities. “We want to get the involvement of as many people and as many agencies as we can,” emphasized Dewey Houck, RAIL president, as the students cut brush.

RAIL obtained the property from the Raleigh County Commission and the two agencies will work closely while developing the site, Houck noted. Also, working with the Coal Heritage Highway Authority, Mountain Resource Conservation and Development, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, among other agencies to develop the project. “RAIL has a reputation for turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” Houck explained. In addition to several other projects, RAIL has created a busy community center in the former Mullens Grade School building in South Mullens. Now widely known as the MOC (Mullens Opportunity Center), the center features community gardens and a farmers market in summer months, an outdoor stage for concerts and events, community exercise programs, among numerous other projects to benefit area residents. Additionally, near Wyoming Continuous Care Center, RAIL created a roadside park in New Richmond with picnic tables, walking trail, and a kayak/canoe launch site. The center of the new park will also be a kayak/canoe launch onto the Guyandotte.

The park is the headwaters of the Guyandotte, Houck said. It will be the first launch site on the 160-mile Guyandotte River Trail, which is growing in popularity, Houck noted. That will give RAIL the first four launch sites on the river trail, with other locations already developed at the MOC, the former Itmann School building, and the New Richmond roadside park. “This will be a wonderful spot to get out on the water,” emphasized Sam Petsonk, a RAIL board member participating in the cleanup efforts. “I’ve done this stretch of the river.” Petsonk believes the park will benefit all the small communities dotting the area. Raleigh County could save on its “jail bill,” the cost of housing prisoners in Southern Regional Jail, by assigning those sentenced to perform community service in the development of the park, Petsonk said. “Two birds, one stone,” he emphasized. “I think we can do something with this that can really benefit the community,” emphasized Reece Neely, also a RAIL board member working at the site last week.

You can also drive the trail, staying close to the river all along the way, explained James Frye, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working with RAIL. “You can have breakfast in Beckley and dinner in Huntington,” Frye said. Kiosks have been installed at several of the more than 20 launch sites along the river trail, providing historic facts and valuable information about riding the river, Frye noted. A cultural center, focusing on the area’s rich coal mining and railroading histories, is also planned. “You could get on a train right here,” Houck explained of the site, “and ride the train to New York City. You could actually go anywhere in the country by train from right here.” To collect and exhibit more of the local history, Houck wants to involve more people from the community. Stonecoal Junction sits in the middle of the historic Winding Gulf coalfields, surrounded by nearly 30 coal camps within a 10-mile radius, Houck noted.

At one time, the Raleigh County location was a railroad yard for C&O and an interchange with the Virginian Railroad, Houck said. “It was an important passenger train exchange for people from other areas traveling through the coalfields,” Houck explained. Byrd Prillerman High School was established here in 1927 for African-American students, Houck said. “It was named in honor of a former slave, who was an eminent state educator and president of West Virginia State College. The 5.88-acre parcel also has a 1.5-acre fish pond fed by a nearby coal mine, Houck said. “We want to try to grow trout,” he said. First, Houck said, RAIL will be working with other agencies to develop a plan to clean the mine water. Stonecoal Junction was a hub of activity for many years and Houck believes it can be. Beckley, West Virginia

Staff works to improve community park

March 16, 2020


NEW RICHMOND – Despite the slippery mud left by the early morning rain, 15 James Madison University staff members were hard at work in the Guyandotte River Park, near Wyoming County East High School, Wednesday morning. The group of university professionals was moving a wooden bridge back into place, and above the flood plain, after recent flooding moved it about 150 yards downriver, explained Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) president. RAIL created the roadside park several years ago. Part of the Coal Heritage Trail, the park is also a river access point for the 160-mile Guyandotte River Water Trail. With a kayak/canoe launch site in the park, RAIL has established the first four of 20 access points along the Guyandotte River, Houck said. Additionally, the university group was rebuilding walking trails around the park and clearing out the trash during their three-day stay.  The group also planned to place a sign marking the spot where the “Fletcher Treasure” was discovered by the Boy Scouts in 2017. Wrapped in a deteriorating cloth, the large weathered box contained what appeared to be pearls, along with colorful beads and other jewelry items, tarnishing metals, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, along with old coins and paper money. A faded letter instructed the “finders to keep” the treasure and Houck gave it to the Scouts, who came from Huntington and were part of the summer’s Boy Scout Jamboree community service projects. “The letter said it belonged to the finders,” Houck said at the time. “They found it; they should take it with them as far as I’m concerned.” As to who buried the treasure, or when it was placed in the ground, or from where the loot could have come may always be in question, Houck maintained. 

Using their spring break from the university, the 15-member team is in the final phase of an intensive, year-long leadership program, known as IMPACT 3, explained Khalil Garriott, the university’s digital content director. “We’re trying to do our part to help the community,” Garriott said. However, the team also used the trip to build their working partnerships, improve communication, get to know each other better, while learning to work together and develop problem solving skills, he noted. Another leadership unit from the school spent their spring break volunteering with RAIL last year, Garriott said. “We’ve been building on what they did last year.”

May 16, 2018

AmeriCorps teams working to make a difference

AmeriCorps members have been working in conjunction with the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), housed in the Mullens Opportunity Center, for several years. The members have completed numerous projects at the center during that time, making a difference for the community. The RAIL/AmeriCorps partnership is a winning combination, resulting in completed community projects and AmeriCorps members learning a variety of marketable skills. “AmeriCorps is providing on the job training and community service that can help introduce new businesses into the coalfields,” according to Dewey Houck, president of RAIL. In a partnership with Citizens Conservation Corps West Virginia (CCCWV) and Corporation for National and Community Service, four AmeriCorps members are performing community service work in Wyoming County. The four AmeriCorps workers are assigned to RAIL and headquartered at the Mullens Opportunity Center. In addition to maintaining RAIL projects that include the MOC, Guyandotte River Park, assisting at the area food bank, and numerous other community enhancement projects, the AmeriCorps members are learning a trade and exploring opportunities based on local attributes, Houck explained. The team has removed the former steam heating system and is replacing it with an individual gas and electric heating system that will dramatically decrease the utilities cost at the Mullens Opportunity Center.

The MOC building, the former Mullens Grade School facility, is now almost 70 years old and keeping the plumbing, heating, and electrical system operational is an almost daily task, Houck noted. “This kind of experience works well to prepare the team for starting a demolition and restoration business,” he said. With no budget for maintenance, the work is completed at the MOC by volunteers and staff. “That said, the entrepreneurial spirit is present and the AmeriCorps team continues to look at building business, based on the area’s natural resources, that will help build a new economic base,” Houck said. Currently, timber is being taken out of Wyoming County that can jump start an industry of processing logs into authentic 17th century log home kits, Houck noted. “A benefactor is providing the logs as well as specialized tools and equipment to build at least two prototype log houses “The erected kits will be used to develop a cost/profit analyses and marketing program,” Houck said. “All important in the training is to have volunteers such as Gary Runion, Reece Neely, Bobby Davis, and others provide professional guidance and expertise necessary to keep the MOC operational while finding other ways to improve their community,” Houck emphasized.

“Theresa McGraw, from Business Solutions, is very ably providing advice on how to start and maintain a business,” Houck said. “The AmeriCorps team is already setting aside funds to begin a business. ”At this point, the AmeriCorps team is made up of Chris Hicks, Ariel Martin, Ian Halsey, and Chris Trent. The AmeriCorps term is six months with an option of serving an additional six months with approval of the sponsoring organization. AmeriCorps provides health insurance, a college education award of $2,907 after six months of service, as well as a living allowance of $490 on the first and 15th of each month. Anyone interested in an AmeriCorps position is urged to phone Charlene Cook, MOC director, at 304-294-6188. “RAIL is most proud to be affiliated with the AmeriCorps program and CCC WV,” Houck emphasized. Citizens Conservation Corps West Virginia has an allocation of 12 AmeriCorps members, with eight assigned to the Twin Branch Recreational Facility in McDowell County and four assigned to the MOC in Wyoming County. Article:

Apr 25, 2018

Mullens Spring Festival set May 9-12


The Avalons, family-oriented entertainers who perform rock-n-roll oldies, will headline the second annual Mullens Spring Festival. Fallen Rock, a well-known Mullens area band, will be the featured performers Friday from 8 until 10 p.m. The Spring Festival is scheduled May 9-12, Wednesday-Saturday, featuring carnival rides, by Myers Amusements, on the former Ray Wells Preowned Auto property. Returning favorites include the Mullens Fire Department’s hot dog sale, Mullens Idol contest, Spaghetti Eating contest, among numerous popular activities, along with a variety of vendors. Concerts and other events will be held at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), the former Mullens Grade School building, across from the carnival. The Avalons, formerly Sh-Boom of Ohio, are a nationally-known band that performs music from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s along with comedic antics and audience participation. They will take the stage Saturday at 8 p.m.

The Avalons have shared the stage with such well-known artists as the Beach Boys, America, Four Tops, Temptations, Smothers Brothers, Vogues, Mamas and Papas, among numerous other stars. Myers Amusements provided rides and other carnival activities for last year’s festival and, in previous years, for the Dogwood Festival, Dewey Houck, one of the organizers, explained. “The Spring Festival is a feature, orchestrated by the City of Mullens, that is designed to have something for every member of the family – young and old,” Houck emphasized. On Wednesday, vendors will set up at 9 a.m. along with registration for the E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest, sponsored by BJW Printing, in the MOC gym. Divisions include kindergarten through fourth grade, fifth to eighth grades, and ninth grade to adult. There is a three-item limit. The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at 5 p.m. in the MOC gym.

Myers Amusements will be open from 6 until 10 p.m., with a $20 hand-stamp special. ❖ On Thursday, vendors will open at 10 a.m. along with E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest registration in the MOC gym. The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at noon in the MOC gym. Carnival rides will be open from 6 until 10 p.m., again with a $20 hand-stamp special. Registration for the Mullens Idol contest, sponsored by KISS FM, will be conducted from 6 until 7 p.m. Prizes will be awarded to first, second and third place winners. On Friday, vendors again open at 10 a.m. along with the E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest registration. The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at noon in the MOC gym. The Dogwood Tree Planting Memorial ceremony, sponsored by Tankersley Funeral Home, will be conducted at 4 p.m. on the MOC stage. Stoney Trent will perform as Elvis on stage at 4 p.m. At 7 p.m., contest winners will be announced on stage. The festival will culminate with The Avalons at 8 p.m. on the MOC stage. Article:

Sep 24, 2017

Houck working to create opportunities for his community


Dewey Houck, RAIL president, stands on a handicap access deck to the Guyandotte River that was built by the Boys Scouts during the 2013 Jamboree. (Rick Barbero/The Register Herald) Houck has worked hard all his life. Today, at the age of 82, he is still working, but now as a volunteer and community leader. After retiring from the railroad at the age of 55 in 1989, he went to work to give back to his beloved community. Today, nearly three decades later, he is president of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) which has built a very successful community center in the former Mullens Grade School building. Known as the Mullens Opportunity Center, or MOC, the center houses a variety of activities, and opportunities, for residents.

You currently reside where? I have a house in Roanoke, Va., that I share with my daughter. I am making my primary residence in Pierpont, in a house built especially for me by my friends. I also have a room at the MOC where I have lived since my wife died about a year ago.

How many children? I have two children that I am very proud of. My son, who was born at the Mullens General Hospital in 1956, just retired from Boeing as a senior vice president. My daughter, born in Bluefield, is a medical doctor and Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Education, degrees: I graduated from Mullens High School in 1955 and married fellow classmate Sheila Snyder. We joined in marriage that same year and began attending Concord College. After a year and half at Concord, I took a job with the Virginian Railroad in Mullens that was much better suited to my upbringing and educational capacity.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Pierpoint in 1934. We moved to Otsego, Mullens, Wyco, and then back to Pierpoint when I was in the fourth grade. I went through the eighth grade at Maben Grade school.

Share a story that best typifies your childhood: Like many youth of my culture, I quit high school in the ninth grade. Going from a small school, such as Maben, where many of the teachers taught two classes in the same room, I was not properly prepared for high school. The high school teachers taught the brightest and those of us who could not keep up were quickly getting failing grades. Rather than being embarrassed, I took the easiest way out. I tried coal mining and truck driving, but pressure to get me back into high school, from my parents and other family, did not cease. The best thing that ever happened to me was going back to high school where I met Miss Sheila Snyder. The second try at high school presented no problems with grades, it was some of the best years of my life. I graduated the oldest in my class.

Who, or what, has been the biggest influence in your life and why? My life began with a loving mother and father that were role models and taught me the value of family and community. My wife instilled in me that we are all God’s children and we must do good for all and not discriminate. My church (Presbyterian) taught me to witness by doing good for others. I was fortunate to take a job with the Virginian Railroad in 1957. My career, with the railroad, that I felt was honest and well managed, supported my modest family lifestyle and now retirement. All these influences shaped my life and prepared me to give back to the society that had given me a good life.

How would you best describe your work ethic? I believe in, and practice doing, the best I can at whatever I attempt.

You were retired from the railroad, then organized RAIL; is that right? I retired from the Norfolk Southern Railroad in Atlanta, Ga., in 1989 at the age of 55. The first 10 years of retirement were spent volunteering on projects that were meaningful, but had little effect on the society that had provided a good life for me and my family. My health was good and I had a modest pension that would allow me to return to my favorite place in the world to spend a couple years doing community service in Wyoming County. I have spent most of my time here ever since and I hope to spend as much of my remaining years as possible here.

Dewey Houck, RAIL president, left, and Chris Hicks, AmeriCorps, use a portable saw mill setup at the RAIL office in Mullens. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

How long ago was that? In April 2001, I went to a Mullens City Commission meeting and offered to volunteer to do whatever I could to help the city. They gave me a recently completed, high quality Community Design Team plan and supported efforts to build the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, Inc. (RAIL). The 2001 flood occurred before we could get the plan under way and I spent almost two years assisting with the flood cleanup.

You now drive from Roanoke, Va., to Mullens, W.Va., almost daily to essentially volunteer through RAIL. Why have you decided to do that? When I first came back to Mullens, I lived with my brother Terry and his wife Bobbie during the week and returned to Roanoke for the weekend. My wife was not in good health and we decided to continue living in Roanoke because of better medical facilities. Since my wife’s death last August, I have spent almost all of my time in Mullens.

What other types of jobs have you had? I spent my 18th birthday working in a pony mine at Josephine, W.Va., earning $10 per day. My job was to derail runaway coal cars being pulled by a team of ponies to keep them from meeting head-on and killing or crippling each other. I returned to a mechanized coal mine at Itmann while in college, working on the track for one summer. Had it not been for a family member working on the railroad, who had the influence to get a job for me, I would probably have gone back into the mines.

What did you hope to accomplish when you created RAIL? My initial interest in volunteering was to find ways to help improve life quality for families living in the coalfields, with a strong interest on environment. My interest was not to demonstrate, but to take what we had and treat our mine-scarred lands as a resource. One of my goals was to start a watershed association. With the efforts and guidance of RAIL AmeriCorps VISTA Kelly Jo Drey, a very successful and active watershed association (Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association) was founded as a non-profit corporation. When Kelly Jo left, UGWA floundered for several years and finally discontinued operation this year. RAIL did a study to bring Groundwork USA, a federal program similar to RAIL, to Wyoming County. Although Groundwork was well funded, I did not feel it fit the needs of Wyoming County. Additionally, Groundwork would have to replace RAIL. RAIL had made a good case to bring Groundwork to Wyoming County, but decided not give up its mission for Groundwork and abandoned its own efforts. Proponents at the federal and local level decided to take on the responsibility of establishing Groundwork in Wyoming County. Now Groundwork, UGWA, and a dozen or so other similar startups in Wyoming County have failed since the 2001 flood with little visibility of their efforts. After 16 years of service, RAIL is now more active than ever. I feel like we have gone beyond what I had hoped for when RAIL was created in 2001. Hopefully, what has been accomplished by RAIL will convince those that have resources to support its continued efforts.

Dewey Houck, RAIL president, looks over a replica of a Virginian train in the museum of the RAIL office in Mulleins. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

What do you enjoy most about it? For me, it is most enjoyable to work with the wonderful and loyal staff and volunteers. Charlene Cook does a very good job managing the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC) which was the former Mullens Grade School. Her assistants include Joey Ashley, Tim McGraw, and Brenda Tilley. The structures that surround the MOC would not be there without volunteer leader Gary Runion, who also is the first one that gets a call when the electricity or plumbing is malfunctioning. The RAIL/CCCWV AmeriCorps team – which includes Chris Hicks, Matt Sink, and Wyatt Smith – are all important to maintaining the RAIL facilities and building parks and recreation facilities along the Coal Heritage Trail. Ruby Ingram is doing an excellent job managing a garden startup program through a Berea College program. And it is always exciting to work with college spring and fall break teams. University of Kentucky and William and Mary will be visiting in October. Utilizing the 10,000 hours of volunteer service RAIL receives each year to build sustainable projects is very satisfying and educational for the staff.

For the 2018 spring break, Baltimore University and Delaware University will be here in March. Baltimore has spent their spring break for the past three years establishing an orchard on a nearby abandoned mountain farm. A friend has provided RAIL a portable sawmill. A friend has agreed to provide RAIL logs sufficient to build a 17th century hand-hewed log cabin at the former mountain farm orchard. RAIL volunteers, staff, and AmeriCorps will bring all these resources together, with help from the spring break teams, and leave another tangible asset in Wyoming County. Not only do we have an authentic mountain hand-hewed cabin, but we are hopeful that one or more of the AmeriCorps will start a business of building and marketing hand-hewed mountain cabins. Building and marketing cabins meets one of RAIL’s goals of using local products in West Virginia to produce jobs. I firmly believe that people living in the coalfields must solve their social and economic problems. And the best place to start solving those problems is with the young people. Not much of this can be accomplished without sound management and the best leadership possible.

What frustrates you, or maybe limits you, as president of RAIL? I will readily admit I am frustrated and disappointed that I am not able to accomplish as much as can be achieved based on available resources. I did not have the education, training, and had only limited energy and intellect which is essential to building a successful business. Perhaps attempting to start a new kind of business at the age of 67 limited my ability to do more. I firmly believe that if we had a professional person equipped with energy, creativity, intellect, and the desire to help build a new economic base in the coalfields, RAIL would be a much more successful and sustainable organization. Our local agencies are doing their job and can well use the versatility that a non-profit has to offer in helping build a new and prosperous social order.

The fact that I take no compensation for my labor and work long hours has allowed RAIL to operate somewhat successfully for the past 16 years. At 82 years old, time, energy, intellect, and an old folk’s memory are taking a toll. I would like to have been and should have been gone from RAIL long ago, but finding someone that will work for nothing is difficult. Sadly, and probably with good reason, funders do not like to fund operating costs which includes people, utilities, and other costs associated with running a business. Not much can happen without a business and I feel like our limited staff and volunteers have built a business worthy of support from agencies and foundations. So I am frustrated that I cannot compete with other entities that have highly trained and educated grant writers.

How big a difference do you believe RAIL has made for Mullens? I feel like RAIL has had a positive effect on Mullens. On a national, state, and local level, RAIL is small. Those of us that put our sweat and best efforts into building and maintaining RAIL programs and projects feel our results are effective. Perhaps giving a synopsis of RAIL’s accomplishments in Mullens is in order. A good place to start is with salvaging and taking ownership of the former Mullens Grade School Complex, now called Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC). The facilities are open to the public and used extensively as a community center. A healthy lifestyle and diabetes prevention and support are offered to the public as a service. Volunteers have constructed a mini museum/information center patterned after a Virginian outlying telegraph office, concrete handicap access to river, high tunnel, garden complex, and outdoor theater. Inside the MOC is a railroad museum, excellent fitness center, computer center, gym, two kitchens, and 22 rooms available for a host of uses.

Do you believe you can make a difference in Wyoming County through RAIL? How? Yes, I think RAIL can help make a positive difference in Wyoming County – socially and economically. Thanks to CCC WV, RAIL has an AmeriCorps program that not only is a powerful workforce, but it is preparing our young people to become leaders and assist them in starting businesses. Thanks to the generosity of Pocahontas Land, RAIL now owns the former Itmann Grade School and has established a well-used roadside park along the Coal Heritage Trail. The mission of RAIL is to help improve life quality for all families in the coalfields, focusing on Wyoming County needs and opportunities. I would like to emphasize RAIL can only help solve the problems that exist in the coalfields. It takes us all working together to build a new and sustainable economic base.

You’ve been a proponent of saving the historic buildings in Mullens. Why? And, have you been successful in that? I feel we need to save historic buildings to preserve their history and also to give local citizens a sense of pride in their community. It is hard to feel good about your location when you are surrounded by decaying buildings. In addition, the restoration provides needed jobs and is an excellent opportunity to teach our youth marketable skills.

What do you believe are the attributes of a successful leader? How do you incorporate these attributes as president of RAIL?Leader’s must have capacity to see positive possibilities where others see only negativity. Then leaders turn their dreams into workable plans. They find ways to share their plans that entice, and welcome, others to become involved in implementing the plans. As RAIL president, I devote hours assessing needs and possibilities; then I work to pair each volunteer, and each employee, with the task for which they are best suited.

How do you want to be remembered after you’ve left RAIL? If I am remembered as a man who cared for people, and the environment, and then put that caring into action to work for a better world, then I would feel my life was meaningful.

Anything you want to add? I think of RAIL as people coming together to improve life quality for all families living in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. Without these people that have worked hard to better conditions in the coalfields, I would have nothing to write about.

July 26, 2017

Boy Scouts unearth ‘buried treasure’ in Wyoming County


(Staff photos by Mary Catherine Brooks) Boy Scouts working in New Richmond Tuesday morning unearthed a large wooden box containing numerous items, including tarnished metals, colorful beads, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, old coins and paper money, among other items. A faded letter said the bounty belonged to the finders.

NEW RICHMOND — While Boy Scout Troops from across the nation have participated in community service projects across southern West Virginia, it was a West Virginia Troop that uncovered what appeared to be buried treasure Tuesday morning in Wyoming County. Thirty-one Boy Scouts from the Huntington area, along with two more Scouts from Colorado, unearthed a large wooden box while constructing a foot bridge in Guyandotte Park, near Wyoming County East High School. “We’re rich! We’re rich!” the Scouts chanted as four boys pulled their discovery from the ground. Wrapped in a deteriorating cloth, there was a key to unlock the large weathered box. However, in the excitement and with Scouts pushing in to get a closer look, the key was lost in the dirt. The lock was broken with the nearby digging tools to reveal pearls, colorful beads, jewelry, tarnishing metals, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, along with old coins and paper money. Afterward, pandemonium ensued with Scouts and local volunteers wanting to get a closer look at the discovery. With one Scout commanding all the items be placed back onto a rug where the new found wealth was laid out, the onlookers were much too curious to follow the instructions.

Some of the Scouts, however, doubted the authenticity of the discovery, wondering about the age of the items included in the weathered box and the gluey remains of a vanished sticker on the bottom of a small statue. A faded letter instructed the “finders to keep” the treasure and Dewey Houck, president of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), said as far as he is concerned, that is exactly what will happen. “The letter said it belonged to the finders,” Houck said. “They found it; they should take it with them as far as I’m concerned.” As to who buried the treasure, or when it was placed in the ground, or from where the loot could have come may be a mystery that is never solve.

Under the direction of Houck and the RAIL staff, the Scouts were making improvements to the small roadside park on the Guyandotte, including new signage, improved walking paths, a river access point and a new foot bridge. Much of the work on the park thus far has been completed with college students who participated in service projects during their spring breaks. The park is one of several tourism projects Houck is coordinating to lure more visitors. Article:

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”.

“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.” Article: 

Feb 6, 2017

Youth work to improve communities


—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. Article: 

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 Food shed 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. “We look 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 and 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. Article:

May 9, 2016

Mullens Opportunity Center will conduct farmers market

Butch 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. Article: 

Nov 23, 2015

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


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). 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. Article:

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 President. The MOC gardening practices are providing produce for the weekly farmers’ market. 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, Tankersley 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 Food shed 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 Food shed 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. Article:

AUG 23, 2014

Rahall meets with miners on black lung issues


MULLENS — They came for hope — some with questions, some with myriad paperwork to claim federal black lung benefits, some pulling oxygen machines to help them breathe due to the debilitating lung disease. The miners attending a meeting Friday in the Mullens Opportunity Center wanted to know that benefits they’d been promised would be delivered. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., met with Wyoming County coal miners to discuss the changes in the laws regarding black lung benefits and the efforts under way now in Congress to overturn recent gains in the legislation. Also talking with miners were Dennis Robertson, of the Bluestone Health Association; Joe Massey, president of the Fayette County and the National Black Lung Association; and Nancy Massey, who serves as secretary of the national organization; along with Sam Petsonk and Brenda Ellis, of the Wyoming County Black Lung Association. Nancy Massey said her husband, Joe, deals with black lung health issues and uses oxygen. “It’s no fun, when you’re trying to sleep,” she said, and you can hear your husband trying to breathe. “And it doesn’t get any better. It just gets worse,” she said. “The loss of a loved one to this debilitating disease is hard enough without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops,” Rahall told the group.

For several years, Rahall said he had introduced legislation to overturn Reagan-era changes to the black lung program. Those changes resulted in longtime and sick coal miners having to overcome new legal hurdles to claim their benefits, usually fighting against an array of lawyers. Rahall’s legislation, which U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd sponsored as an amendment to the new health care law in 2010, partially repealed those Reagan-era changes, and also made it easier for miners’ widows to claim benefits. Byrd, in the final days of his life and in failing health himself, took the Senate floor to have language included in the Affordable Health Care Act that deemed any coal miner who has worked for 15 years in mining has the presumption of black lung disease, Rahall said. Since that 2010 change in legislation, about 1,700 claims have been processed with more than 1,000 claims for surviving widows. “There is a callous — and, let’s be honest, partisan — effort under way to undercut the programs designed to help treat the crippling effects of this terrible illness,” Rahall said. “It may be that (the process) is so long and drawn out because, maybe, the coal miners won’t be with us to collect the benefits,” Rahall told the group. “The too often callous treatment extended toward miners and surviving family members because of these burdensome requirements is being remedied, and I am so proud to have worked closely with Sen. Byrd to have helped make that happen,” Rahall said.

On average, Rahall said, it takes 42 months to process a claim for black lung benefits due to the backlog. He’s made suggestions that he believes will reduce that time to 34 months. Dewey Houck, director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, along with Robertson and other panel members lauded Rahall’s continuing efforts to support coal miners. “I want to thank our coal miners for laboring beneath the bowels of the earth to extract our energy … ,” Rahall said. “Unfortunately, their efforts are taken for granted in other places — especially the cities, where they just flip the lights on and don’t think about the sacrifices of our miners.” Article:

July 14, 2014

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

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.

See more at:

April 14, 2014

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

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. See more at:

Nov 5, 2012

Museums/Feller Heritage Center

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

From the first settler in what is now Oceana to the railroad boom in Mullens, museums across Wyoming County are showcasing the origins of civilization, industry, and life through the centuries. In Mullens, an AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) team, working with several local volunteers, completed painting the Jack Feller Coalfields History and Culture Information Center, or Feller Heritage Center, earlier this year. The mini-museum houses exhibits focusing on the area’s railroading, coal mining, and timbering histories, along with other Appalachian legacies, according to Dewey Houck, president of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), which operates the center. The structure is a replica of the Virginian Railway telegraph office, located in Ellett, Va., that controlled eastbound movement of trains through the mile-long Allegheny Tunnel, Houck explained. Feller has written a series of books on the history of Mullens and is a Virginian Railroad enthusiast responsible for coordinating annual local tours for visiting railroad devotees, Houck said. Feller was honored during ceremonies last fall at the Mullens Opportunity Center, where the mini museum is located. W. H. “Bill” Wade donated the telegraph key used at the Mullens railroad station, Houck said. The telegraph will be a central part of the museum exhibits.

“In the early days of railroading, trains relied on the telegraph to keep up with trains moving from place to place,” Houck explained. “The mini museum will be furnished as an early telegraph office and flag stop for passengers to get on or off trains. “Mullens sprang up as a railroading, coal mining, and timbering center of commerce — supporting almost two dozen coal camps, a lumber mill town, and other small communities,” Houck noted. “Many of these sites have some remainder of history that can be pointed out and many have substantial evidence of a once thriving commercial base,” Houck said. “Sponsors of the initiative envision the facility as a first stop for tourists exiting the Coalfields Expressway in Mullens who desire to visit local sites of interests or purchase local crafts or specialty agricultural products. “When the Coalfields Expressway gets to Mullens, we want to be in some kind of condition to welcome people onto the Coal Heritage Trail,” Houck said of the center. “The building contains one large room, with half containing a replica of a mid-20th century railroad telegraph office,” Houck added.The remainder of the structure will contain photographs and other displays.

John Cooke is the first known permanent settler of Wyoming County. He built his cabin at the mouth of Laurel Fork, in what is today Oceana, in the late 1790s, according to historians. His gun is believed to have been constructed in the 1700s as well. Cooke fought in the Revolutionary War and fought against the Indians as a soldier, according to historians. Additionally, prior to his death, historian Paul Ray Blankenship provided a brick, made by slaves on the McDonald Plantation, to the museum. Capt. Edward McDonald is believed to be the third permanent settler of Wyoming County, in 1802. McDonald was the first to bring slaves into Wyoming County. The 7,000-acre farm included barns, tool sheds, tobacco shelters, a blacksmith shop, a gristmill, among other structures. The area today is known as Crouch’s Farm. In addition to the various exhibits, the museum also serves as an information center for the two Civil War Trails markers, located near Oceana, depicting two historic Civil War incidents that occurred in Wyoming County.

Sep 24, 2012

Annual farm parade slated Saturday

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Mullens’ year-long centennial celebration will continue with the annual farm parade Saturday, Sept. 29, at noon. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., will serve as grand marshal. Two AmeriCorps NCCC teams will arrive Friday, Sept. 28, “to assist local volunteers in building their community into a destination for travelers and guests who desire to come and enjoy the mountains and pleasing culture,” Houck said. The Mullens Opportunity Center is the site for 10 RV/camper sites and 15 primitive camp sites. “All the labor is being provided by volunteers and AmeriCorps,” Houck said. “This will be the eighth time NCCC has visited Mullens to help with community and economic development projects. “Previous NCCC teams have assisted in building a full size outdoor theater in a setting that will accommodate over 1,000 people,” Houck noted. “They also assisted in establishing Tater Hill Park and trail system, complete with a pavilion and overlook. “Additionally, NCCC assisted in constructing a replica of a railroad remote telegraph office that serves as a mini museum/information center,” Houck said.

On Saturday, the work day will begin at 8 a.m., then participants will join in the parade. Following the parade, prizes will be awarded, at the outdoor theater, for best in parade along with best dressed male and best dressed female in farmer outfits. A cornbread and beans dinner will be served from 3 until 5 p.m. followed by a gospel sing beginning at 5 p.m. On Sunday, Cheat River Band will perform beginning at 3 p.m. Houck lauded volunteers Jimmy and Iris Manning, Dee and Ronnie Lusk, and Karen Bowers for their hard work in organizing the parade. “Having volunteers take on projects, such as this, is very good for community building; that is so necessary in building a new economy,” Houck emphasized.

Aug 20, 2012

RV/camper park

Reece Neely (right) installing power supply to MOC RV/Camper sites

 Ten RV/camper sites were completed Aug. 10-13 at the Mullens Opportunity Center, according to Dewey Houck, president of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) which operates the center. The group’s 11th AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) team worked with several local volunteers to construct the sites, clear the banks of the adjacent Guyandotte River for picnic tables, and to paint the Jack Feller Coalfields History and Culture Information Center. The sites will serve ATV riders and other visitors, Houck said. The project was funded through a state grant and much of the materials donated by Gordan Brooks, who grew up in Mullens and now owns an electrical services company in Roanoke, Va.

RAIL projects getting on track

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Jun 27, 2011

Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) will have 10 work teams this year, according to Dewey Houck, director. One of the most recent was an eight-member team from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church of Centre County, Pa. The trip was arranged by Laura Brown, a senior undergraduate studies adviser at Penn State University, Houck said. “A lot of people take vacation to come here,” Houck said. “It intrigues me that people will take vacation to come here and work. ”Unitarian team members must earn the money to participate in a mission trip, Houck explained, adding this group brought $1,500 to purchase materials. They sponsored a dinner and washed windows to raise the funds, Houck noted. “They raise sufficient funds to pay for all the materials they use on a project,” he said. In addition to working on the historic Wyco church, the group has assisted with work on three Mullens area houses, according to Ken Riznyk, a retired psychologist who worked for the state of Pennsylvania. Additionally, the volunteers hauled off roofing shingles for an 88-year-old who had replaced his own roof but had no way to dispose of the old shingles.

One of the handicaps of working in the area is the lack of ready supplies, Riznyk said. “If you need something, you’ve got to drive at least 45 minutes, then 45 minutes back,” he said. “Takes up a lot of the day.” Riznyk has spent previous vacations in Puerto Rico and New Orleans helping to rehab housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “I’ve had a comfortable life,” Riznyk said, adding he wanted to help people who need it. “I’ve been doing this for over 10 years,” Houck said, “and there is a satisfaction you get from volunteering and helping people.” The four women in the group spent most of their time at the church, painting the newly-installed siding and other work, Houck said. Built in 1917, the Wyco Independent Baptist Church was built for the community’s white miners and their families during the 20th century coal boom, when segregation was a way of life. Now owned by RAIL, the church hasn’t been used for services since the early 1980s.

The church was named to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 endangered properties list, and, in 2010, was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Houck wants to restore the structure to its original grace and has been working to garner funding and volunteer labor. He hopes to house a coal camp museum inside the restored church, complete with audio recordings of the area’s history now being made across the southern coalfields. He hopes to return the church to a community resource, as well as a place where visitors can meditate. Restoration is being completed in phases, Houck notes. A new road to the church has been constructed and a bridge over Allen Creek was built to create a path to the church. Improvements to the church thus far will be showcased during a public event in July, Houck said. Information can accessed on the following links.

March 22nd 2010-

Aug 7, 2010 Mary Catherine Brooks- Wyoming county report

Chainsaw motors and pounding hammers shattered the quiet solitude of the hillside where the 93-year-old church sits overlooking the small coalfield community of Wyco Friday morning. Built in 1917, the Wyco Independent Baptist Church was built for the community’s white miners and their families during the 20th century coal boom, when segregation was a way of life. Now owned by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens, the historic church hasn’t been used for services since the early 1980s and sits in disrepair. Dewey Houck, RAIL director, wants to restore the structure to its original grace and has been working to garner funding and volunteer labor. Houck hopes to house a coal camp museum inside the restored church, complete with audio recordings of the area’s history now being made across the southern coalfields. He hopes to return the church to a community resource, as well as a place where visitors can meditate. The church was named to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 endangered properties list; then, in March, was named to the National Register of Historic Places, opening the door for “a whole range of funding opportunities,” according to Lynn Stasick, statewide field representative for the Preservation Alliance.

Stasick has provided suggestions on what needs to be done to preserve the structure and assisted with getting the church placed on the prestigious lists. Restoration is being completed in phases, Houck notes. The first phase was to clean up the property and prevent further damage from the elements. The deteriorating roof has resulted in significant water damage inside the church. With about $50,000 available in funding, a contractor will be hired to shore up and bring the structure back, Houck explained. Then, volunteers will again step in and complete the work. Houck believes the project will take another year. Volunteers have been the backbone of the work completed over the last couple of years and a group from Atlanta, Ga., was busy during a return trip Friday. They will spend the weekend painting and cleaning. The group cut down trees, cleared away brush, and worked inside the structure Friday. Shirley Farmer Weaver, who grew up in Itmann, along with fellow First Presbyterian Church members from Douglasville, Ga., co-workers from Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., and other friends spent time working at the church last year. “Dewey went to this church,” she explained. “This is very important to him, so it became very important to us.” “This is what we have left — our coal culture — to sell to tourists,” Houck emphasized. The following links will provide more information.

July 19, 2009

Apr 2, 2009

Junior Achievement awarded RAIL grant

The Mullens Project, part of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), awarded a $1,000 grant to Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. to support the kick off of Junior Achievement’s “Entrepreneurial Education Initiative Project. ”This project will assist in providing approximately 40 Wyoming County youth “an experienced-based curriculum which will improve the lives of youth through work force development, providing greater opportunities in school and life,” according to Dewey Houck, director of RAIL. The students will be selected from schools with 50 percent or more of the student body receiving free or reduced lunches. Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. will create a learning laboratory within the classroom using a practical, interactive learning approach, Houck explained. “The support of The Mullens Project is critical to teaching students to focus on the future, with the understanding needed to acquire an applied vision of the work force. Each young achiever is provided the opportunity to explore, think critically, and team build,” Houck said. “RAIL and The Mullens Project is a guiding force in improving the lives of West Virginia children,” according to Houck. “Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. is one of many non-profits who would not be able to complete their mission without the support and encouragement of The Mullens Project.”

May 29, 2008 

Mullens native keeps RAIL on track -By Mary Catherine Brooks

Dec 6 2007

Groundwork Steering Committee Organizes

By Mary Catherine Brooks

Representatives from across Wyoming County are exploring the possibility of becoming part of the Groundwork USA Network, a national partnership of communities working to restore brownfields and to develop under-utilized land. A dozen candidates for a steering committee, known as Groundwork Wyoming County, met Tuesday afternoon to begin work on the project, which will include an outline of sites across the county that can be developed for recreational opportunities, housing sites, and/or economic development. “I want this to be a Wyoming County project, so everybody in Wyoming County feels like they have a part in this,” emphasized county Commissioner Silas Mullins. All three municipalities — Mullens, Pineville, and Oceana – were represented, along with other areas, including Baileysville, Hanover, Pierpoint, the faith-based community, among others. Two public meetings will be conducted this week to collect additional public input as to possible projects. Groundwork Wyoming County representatives will conduct a public meeting today, Dec. 10, from 4 until 6 p.m. at Wyoming County East High School in New Richmond. The group will conduct a second meeting Tuesday, Dec. 11, from 4 until 6 p.m. at Westside High School in Clear Fork.

In the past 10 years, most of the communities working as part of Groundwork USA to reclaim under-utilized land have been urban areas, such as Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colo.; and San Diego, Calif. Wyoming County is the first entire county and the first exclusively rural area to participate, according to officials. The county will participate as a pilot project, Mullins explained. The steering committee will work with an initial grant of $15,000 – administered by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) – to develop a feasibility study and create a strategic plan for developing sites that may include abandoned mine sites, industrial areas, and other possible points to create development. Wyoming County qualified for the program as the result of a federal Brownfields Assessment Grant of $200,000 to identify contaminated land parcels for possible clean-up and development — in other words, turning the “brown,” or contaminated land to “green,” or useable.

The second phase of the project will be to obtain an $85,000 Groundwork USA grant to move forward with any possible projects; however, the grant must be matched by $25,000 from local sources each year for three years. The steering committee can decide not to move forward, according to Peggy Pings, of the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program. In the event the committee moves forward, it will become an independent, non-profit environmental business. Several possible sites and projects have been tentatively outlined by RAIL, but the list is not all encompassing, noted Dvon Duncan, director. One of the listed projects included clearing out derelict housing and abandoned vehicles. “We have about 200 homes that have been abandoned in Wyoming County,” Mullins explained and about 100 trailers that are hindering our environment,” he added. Whether the Groundwork Wyoming County project is pursued, Mullins pledged to continue working with other agencies to clean up the county.


RAIL projects help put Mullens on track 

By Mary Catherine Brooks 

Jan 5, 2007

Dec 30, 2006

Dec 7, 2006 

Coal miners updated on health, safety issues 

By Mary Catherine Brooks 

 Providing coal miners with information concerning health and safety issues, as well as creating a dialogue between miners, lawmakers, attorneys, health care providers, and other officials was the focus of a public meeting Dec. 2 at the Mullens Opportunity Center.  A vast variety of booklets and other information was provided, along with a panel discussion that included Rep. Nick Rahall; Dr. Edward L. Petsonk of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health; Joe Carter, president of United Mine Workers District 17; John Cline, attorney; Rocky McKinney, Mine Safety and Health Administration Mine Academy; among others. Debbie Johnson, of Bluestone Health Clinic, explained how the clinic staff can assist miners in filing for black lung benefits. Officials explained the lengthy, complicated, and, most often, frustrating process for trying to obtain black lung benefits. Dr. Petsonk, who is conducting a national “survey” to determine the prevalence and severity of lung disease among coal miners, said the number of lung diseases in miners are increasing, progressing rapidly, and are now being found in young miners, some in their 30s. “I thought I might see one case in my lifetime,” he said, adding he has seen numerous advanced cases. 
The “hot spot” for miner-related lung diseases — pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and emphysema — includes an area that encompasses connecting counties in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Virginia, the lung specialist said. 
There are no cures for the respiratory illnesses caused by coal mining, Dr. Petsonk explained, but there are available treatments. He encouraged miners to obtain regular chest x-rays, as well as avail themselves of available treatments. A few miners complained — some with obviously congested, choking coughs — that the system is designed to keep them from getting the benefits to which they are entitled. Laughter could be heard across the gym when MSHA dust sampling methods were discussed. The samples are collected in a manner that does not reflect the true amount of dust in which miners work, the miners agreed. Some of the miners contend the samples are collected in airways in the mines where most of the dust is blown away, and not in areas where miners actually work. Samples with higher readings are deemed inaccurate by officials, the miners told panelists. 
Rahall noted he wants to change the federal law so that a widow does not have to “reprove” her husband had black lung disease upon his death, even though he was awarded benefits prior to his death. Current laws, which randomly cut off benefits to recipients, are inequitable and unreasonable, Rahall contended. Rahall also discussed the MINER Act, signed into law in June, which was created to improve safety conditions inside the mine in the wake of a year “of unrelenting sorrow in our coalfields.” By Nov. 5, 45 coal miners had died across the United States this year, Rahall said. The new federal law requires more oxygen along escape routes in the mine, communication devices that link miners to rescuers on the surface, wireless tracking to help locate trapped miners, better preparedness for rescue teams, continuously updated emergency response plans, and mandates accidents be reported within 15 minutes, Rahall said. He wants to see future laws require the prohibition of belt entries to draw fresh air into a mine and the creation of employee refuges. “Under this administration,” Rahall said, “MSHA has operated in alliance with operators. It has not been the check it is supposed to be under the law. 
“But we now have a new administrator, Richard Stickler. He has pledged to change direction at MSHA. I hope that he does. I hope that his actions at MSHA live up to his name and that he is, in fact, a stickler for the safety of America’s miners as he moves to implement the requirements of the MINER Act. “That act is a good, solid step, but it is just one step in the effort needed to make our mines safer,” Rahall emphasized. “Inspections are critical. Enforcement is essential. And the ability of miners to stand up for safety, to speak out when they see problems in their work areas, to report violations without fear of reprisal, must be protected.” 
“Miners who weren’t able to make it to the event can pick up important information at the MOC about their rights and protections under the law, and about how they can send ideas to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) about new rules that would be helpful on the job,” emphasized Sam Petsonk, VISTA member, who organized the event. “MSHA is required to consider all credible comments, and to issue reasoned responses incorporating the suggestions into law.” Miners also participated in lung function testing and had the opportunity to talk with panel members individually. Future meetings are planned, Sam Petsonk noted. The meeting was sponsored by Bluestone Health Clinic in Princeton, United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds, Volunteers in Service to America, and Rural Appalachian Improvement League. 
For more information about miners’ health and safety, drug abuse in the mines, on-the-job injuries, state workers compensation, or other miners’ issues, contact Sam Petsonk, AmeriCorps VISTA, at Rural Appalachian Improvement League, P.O. Box 171, Mullens, WV 25882, or phone 294-6188.