By Sarah Plummer
The Fayette County Education Fund has spent 11 years doing youth leadership programming and educating the public by spreading environmental awareness.
Fund President David Pollard explained the fund was created by the county commission to develop educational programs for the community.
Pollard said the youth leadership program has touched the lives of about 150 high school juniors since its inception.
Juniors are chosen through a rigorous application process and participate in a nine month-long curriculum, during which they get environmental education and community service experience at Wolf Creek Park in Fayetteville in addition to other diverse sessions.
They attend the NASA’s Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University and learn about economic development, he said.
“We work to make them aware of the opportunities that are here in West Virginia so they can make an informed decision to return here and raise a family when they complete their higher education,” explained Pollard. “I think sometimes we do a great job of telling our young people that they have to leave the state because there are no jobs here and I don’t think that is true.”
Juniors chosen for the leadership program also receive a $500 stipend and have community mentors to correspond with throughout their college experience, he added.
Much of the Fayette County Education Fund’s work centers around Wolf Creek Park’s Wetlands Boardwalk, educating youth and the public on the importance of wetlands, water quality and birds, which are an indicator of environmental well-being, he said.
“In some ways Wolf Creek Park is a big experiment. The county owns 1,000 acres they are developing as a mixed-use business park with businesses and residences. In it we have a trail system that promotes environmental learning,” explained Pollard. “So, as the businesses and housing portions develop, we do so in a way that causes the least amount of fragmentation in the 1,000-acre ecosystem.”
Yearly, the Fayette County Education Fund reaches about 500 individuals of all ages, in part through the annual New River Gorge Birding Festival recently recognized as one of the top 10 birding festivals in the world in “Bird Watcher’s Digest.”
The Birding Festival has drawn people from 46 states and two foreign countries.
In addition, the festival draws more than $100,000 a year into the local economy over one weekend, he said.
“The activities in our area that tend to get most of the attention are rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and climbing, but we are bringing in a diverse group for birding,” said Pollard. “There is almost nothing like our Wetlands Boardwalk in the state. Less than 1 percent of West Virginia is wetlands.”
The Wolf Creek wetlands were created by beaver dams and subsequent ponding.
The fund also hosts a free August festival devoted to hummingbirds and a weekend fall festival focused on warblers and hawk migration.
Pollard said the fund has been fortunate to receive funding through the United Way, grants and contributions from the business community.
Consulting director for the Fayette County Education Fund is Bill Hilton Jr., a naturalist recognized as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science” by Discover magazine in December 2008, noted Pollard.
Hilton is the only person in the world currently studying ruby-throated hummingbirds both on their summering grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Central America, he added.
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