By WENDY HOLDREN
RAINELLE, W.Va. — Standing in the front of Fruits of Labor Cafe, a small bakery on Main Street in Rainelle, Robin Terry shared with a group of roughly 20 residents how much she loves her town.
“Rainelle is a place where I want to be,” Terry began. “A year ago, we had no idea how our lives were about to change.”
“I knew this, and I’ve always know this,” Terry continued, “Rainelle is my home. We’re fortunate to be nestled in the Meadow River Valley in this beautiful county. I feel blessed to have been born and raised here.”
That sense of pride, love of community, and connection to home is exactly what Matt Ford hopes to instill in all the residents of the Meadow River Valley.
Ford, a 34-year-old Quinwood resident, is leading the effort, as the communities rebuild, to rebrand the western part of Greenbrier County — an effort called the Meadow River Valley Initiative.
After the flood, Ford, who’s also the vice chair of the Greater Greenbrier Long-Term Recovery Committee, said the area needed organization. It needed a vision. It needed the drive to be better than it was before.
“We got started about six months ago,” Ford said of the initiative. “As volunteers would come in from other areas, they would say, ‘Where you live is so beautiful,’ but the people who lived here were so hopeless, and they didn’t appreciate where they lived. That led to the rebranding of western Greenbrier County to the Meadow River Valley.”
He continued, “Rather than being part of something else, it’s even worse to be the lesser part of something else. Having this new name, it was like a new name for a new beginning.”
Terry and Ford, as well as several others, spoke to the small gathering June 13 at Fruits of Labor — sharing construction updates, anecdotes from last year’s natural disaster and a vision of hope for the future.
“I’m a fifth or sixth generation Ford to live in western Greenbrier,” Ford shared. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Part of the rebranding initiative includes meetings, just like these, where community members are connected and ideas are generated. The Meadow River Valley Initiative, acting as a hub, helps connects one town to the next, so everyone can act in unison rather than opposition.
Ford said residents of the Meadow River Valley, which includes areas along the Meadow River Watershed such as Alta, Dawson, Smoot, Rupert, Quinwood, Rainelle and Nallen, have been highly receptive to the initiative — “It’s been a good sense of pride for people to be able to identify as their own area, and not a part of something else.”
He’s even selling t-shirts with the letters “MRV” emblazoned across the chest.
Ford, who has an undergraduate degree from West Virginia University and his master’s from Marshall University, is an environmental consultant by profession. From involvement in his church and community developments, he’s always wanted to make a difference in his hometown.
“I guess I’m stubborn. A lot of people I know and graduated with have moved away, but I was pretty dead-set about coming back and making my way here.”
And being here during the flood, seeing the devastation, he said he had to stick around and do more.
“The image of going down Rainelle and seeing mountains and mountains of trash. You call it trash now, but it was people’s belongings and their personal stuff just on the street in piles. It’s hard not to get involved.”
Before, millennials got a pretty bad name from the older folks in town. But after seeing how the younger generation rolled up their sleeves and got to work, Ford said the old timers have changed their minds.
“Part of this is how a community raises its young people. We’ve got to give them some hope and a reason to stay.”
Through connections made at Meadow River Valley Initiative meetings, Ford said a high school teacher hopes to incorporate her students into the initiative, and a health care professional hopes to involve even younger students.
“We’re very focused on making sure we’re inclusive in the ideas of young people,” Ford said. “Inherently in smaller towns, the same people have run the towns forever, and then when someone our age comes in and has an idea, they say that can’t work because we tried it in 1972 and it didn’t work out. The flood has, for lack of a better term, washed all that negativity away.”
He said people are willing, now more than ever, to hear new ideas and make new connections.
Ford hopes as young people become part of the initiative, they remember everything they’ve been a part of and they think, “I don’t want to leave that behind.”
In addition to the creation of a rail trail from Rainelle to Nallen, Ford said the group hopes to establish a water trail from where the rail trail begins toward the interstate. Leading tourists as they paddle their kayaks downstream would make an excellent summer job for high schoolers, Ford noted.
“We have a lot of things we consider to be liabilities that should be assets. It’s about knowing these things and appreciating them. We have a river that floods, yes, but it’s a river you could kayak on. We have empty buildings, yes, but empty buildings that could be turned into a restaurant or bed and breakfast. We have to start thinking about things differently, and that only comes we people look at where they live differently and look at who they are differently.”
For more information, visit meadowriver.org.
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