BECKWITH — Every day the 350-acre Fayette County Park is host to visitors seeking out recreation, beauty, sports or just a place to take a quiet walk in nature.
Youngsters flock to the pool. The 18-hole disc golf course winding through the park’s trees challenges players. Family and community reunions attract those who gather to catch up.
On Aug. 6, however, the park will become an outdoor conference center as Try This West Virginia will host its one-day conference in Fayette County.
Try This West Virginia is a statewide network of those determined to improve the health of West Virginians and the state’s overall quality of life through healthy food and physical activity.
Kate Long, one of the founders of the group in 2013, recently discussed the organization’s inception.
“Try This was really founded by a group of people who represented a lot of organizations like WVU Extension and the Food and Farm Coalition, the Farmers Market Association and so forth who realized that the top-down approach to trying to get communities more healthy wasn’t working and that it needed to be a combination of both local efforts and the state. That they needed to be partnering,” she said.
“So the idea was to build a network of people, all over West Virginia, who were making, trying to create projects in their communities that would make it easier for people to be physically active or to eat healthy food. ‘Cause you know all the research tells us that if you eat healthy food and you’re physically active, you’re probably lowering your risk of chronic disease and obesity and that was what we talked about at that time, but once we got going, we quickly realized that the literature also says that the very same things lower your risk of depression and there’s emerging research that says that it lowers the risk of drug abuse and depression is one of the major entry points for drug abuse.
“We have created that network. It’s there, and we’re trying to get more collaboration between the people who are fighting chronic disease and the people who are trying to fight substance abuse because when you talk about prevention, physical activity and healthy food are valuable tools for both of those. They aren’t magic wands, but they’re valuable tools,” she said.
Brittney Barlett, the director of Try This WV, first joined the network as a community organizer.
“Six years ago, I first started getting involved in local community volunteering and organizing,” the Lewis County resident said this week.
“My very first project with our local volunteer group, Lewis County First, was building our 24-bed Jane Lew Community Garden. I still help manage that project, and even spent two hours there last night.
“It wasn’t until years later I learned it was a Try This minigrant project. Try This helped shape my life without me even knowing it, and I’ve come full circle as executive director since September of 2020.”
It was 2014, according to Long, former director who now serves as the organization’s media director, when Try This first introduced minigrants as a way of helping groups in communities around the state turn visions into reality.
“It was Stephen Smith’s, I thought, pretty brilliant idea to have minigrants and I was the media person and I made a big website that had ‘how to’ advice from West Virginians all over the state and he had the idea that ‘let’s give people money’ and, if they get together a team, it could be teenagers or people from a church or a Brownie troop or whatever, just if they have a good idea and they could convince us that they could do it, they’d be eligible to apply for a little bit of money for their team,” Long said.
Try This West Virginia has given $750,000 to over 300 teams around the state, including 16 grants in Fayette County (see sidebar for Fayette County projects).
Barlett pointed out that Try This, which started out as a small from-the-ground-up organization, has had a major impact statewide.
“Try This WV is a grassroots organizing, networking and collaboration vessel. We partner with organizations and activists statewide to educate, train, and promote the benefits of physical activity and healthy eating. Since we were founded in 2014, Try This has funded 336 healthy-community projects across the state, some of which have leveraged major funding streams and completely reshaped communities for the better,” she said.
“But what makes Try This unique is that it not only plants project seeds, but leadership seeds. Our minigrants are geared towards first-time applicants, require teams to work together to train a new leader, and have helped folks like me get involved in making our communities better. Our goal is to make healthy communities and healthy-community activism accessible to anyone, and we are proud of the coalitions, partnerships and projects we’ve built to make that possible.”
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Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Try This conference was canceled for 2020, but organizers came up with an idea they believe will work safely and help highlight some of the successful outdoor activities that have emerged with the group’s support.
“We usually have a big whoop-de-doo of a conference at West Virginia Wesleyan every year with about 400 to 500 people, but with Covid, last year we didn’t have a conference. But this year, they’re saying we can meet but we still want to be cautious, so let’s have an all-outdoor conference, nothing indoors, and we’re limiting it to 200,” she said.
“So the Fayette County Park was a very logical choice because there’s some wonderful, outstanding programs going on in Fayette County and the park is beautiful, it’s a wonderful location, so we thought ‘Let’s go there and really shine a spotlight on the Fayette County area, the programs that are going on in the area, along with programs from the Eastern Panhandle and the Northern Panhandle and so forth.’
“We’ll be spotlighting Adventure Fayette County, the 4-H Adventure Club, a lot of wonderful things for youth. We have had a Mindfulness in the Schools project that Fayette County took part in and there will be a session on trying to steer economic development in a healthy direction and there will be some people coming down from Morgantown from Extension who work on tourism development and rural development and they will be able to give a lot of advice and statistics and so forth and Gabe Peña (Fayette County Resource Coordinator) will facilitate that. You know obviously we’re going to end up talking about Fayetteville’s big boom that’s happening now because of the national park. That’ll be interesting,” Long said.
Conference participants also will have the chance to take part in some of the programs offered in Fayette County.
“People will have the opportunity while they’re there to try paddle boarding. We’ll have some paddle boards to get in the pond, and disc golf, the guy who created the 18-hole disc golf course there at the park (Andrew Sullivan), will be there to talk to people about how to create a disc golf course and let them try it. There will be a whole Tai Chi troop from the West Side of Charleston.
“It’s going to be a wonderful day and I think that Fayette County has a jewel in that park. It’s a very good location for conferences and we hope that us being there will give it a little boost, too. People can come and be proud of their area,” she said.
When asked what people interested in learning about making a difference in their respective communities could expect to find at the conference, Barlett said those in attendance will meet others like themselves focused on improving the state one project at a time.
“First of all, they’d meet a bunch of people interested in exactly the same thing. Breakfast and lunch always facilitate ‘talking with strangers’ as a way to meet someone new and share your dreams together,” she said.
“As for our scheduled sessions, Try This brings project leaders, organizations, and local activists together to share their knowledge of what makes a community healthier. From teambuilding, to creating a running club, to creating youth leaders, there is a skill to learn for everyone.” (See related story to read more about the breakout sessions.)
Long agreed, and added that the conferences are a great place to find encouragement for those who may be skeptical about tackling a project or the impact they could make.
“All these little grants start to add up…We had an evaluation of Try This by WVU and they asked the people about the impact on their perceptions of Try This and when we first started this it was hard to find anybody who thought that West Virginia could ever get off the worst health list,” Long said.
“People who have been involved in Try This, at that point, about 80 some percent of them said they’d come to think that it was possible. You can’t measure the value of positive positivity, of believing that it is possible and the way they came to believe it is they’d come to Try This and they’d see all those people who were doing really creative, good things and they’d think, ‘My gosh, I’ve been feeling so alone and I can’t believe there’s so many other people doing great stuff.’
“And all of a sudden, so many things seemed possible that hadn’t seemed possible,” she said.
“It’s West Virginians inspiring and helping each other. Try This is a network. We bring people together and they do it. I thing that it’s a very simple idea, but profound in that when people feel that they’re not alone and when they see that so many other West Virginians are doing really creative things, they get excited and at the conference people will see certainly Fayette County, but also the Funraiser Bus is coming from Wheeling. That is just a great thing and they’re bringing the kids. I think that alone would be a lot of inspiration for people for a day.
“You know, people go away from these conferences saying, ‘You know, I didn’t know if I wanted to come to this, but then I didn’t want to leave and I’m just busting with ideas,’” she said.
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The conference will run Friday, Aug. 6 at the park from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost of attendance is $65 and registration closes Aug. 2. Scholarships, both individual and group, also are available. “Try This has always made sure registration cost does not keep people from attending,” the group states on its website (trythiswv.org). “Scholarships are awarded on basis of need to allow young people and people on limited incomes to attend.”
To read more about the conference, or to register, visit http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07ei0f70oqffd46add&llr=vfnv6y4ab.
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Anyone interested in learning more about the Try This West Virginia process, or in working with others to make a difference locally, is urged to attend the conference.
“We hope people from Fayette County…and people from Beckley will come also,” Long said.
“We are encouraging people to make it a weekend,” she added. “We just have a one-day conference, but we’ve arranged some discounts.”
Try This organizers have worked with local businesses such as the Arrowhead Bike Farm, ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge to offer special discounts on Saturday and Sunday so that those who attend can make it a weekend in Fayette County.
“Arrowhead Bike Park is going to have a special ride … the night before and ACE Adventures and Adventures on the Gorge are giving discounts. AOTG donated an adventure for two, your choice, as the door prize.
And there will be also, the following day, a workshop at New Roots Community Farm.
“A chance to see a little bit of the surroundings while you’re there. We’re very happy to shine a spotlight on them,” she said.
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After the cancellation of last year’s conference, Barlett said she’s most looking forward to being together with others again.
“Seeing smiling faces! It has been a difficult time since Covid changed the world, and many of our own team have never met one another in person before,” she said.
“As folks learn, share, and grow, it will also be a time of joy and celebration. I think it's impossible to attend a Try This conference and not leave with your face aching from smiles!”
Barlett also has a few simple questions for those who aren’t sure about the worth of attending the conference.
“Do you care about your community? Do you want to see it offer healthy opportunities, but not sure where to get started? Want to meet like-minded folks with wisdom to share?
“Then come enjoy a day of learning, exploring, and growing with Try This,” she said.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @Fayette_Cheryl