Growing up in Fayette County, Melanie Seiler was surrounded by an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities — rock climbing, white water rafting and hiking — just to name a few.
“I had opportunities to experience outdoor recreation through my family’s business,” Seiler shared. “For a long time, I thought everyone had that access.”
But as she grew older, especially while she was in high school, she realized not everyone had the same type of access to or knowledge of the adventures awaiting them in their backyards.
“When I saw that disconnect in my peers, in people not knowing where local trails were or how to access the river (much less paddle on it), it left an impression on me,” Seiler said. “I saw it impacting health, hopelessness and opportunities for employment.”
When the opportunity arose in 2015 for Seiler to lead Active Southern West Virginia, she couldn’t pass the chance to make a change.
“I was thrilled to find an opportunity in Active SWV to connect people with their backyard resources and help them find benefits to their quality of life,” said Seiler, executive director of Active SWV.
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The nonprofit endeavor started with Nicholas, Fayette, Raleigh and Summers counties, offering fitness and wellness programs to residents by trained volunteers within communities where they live. The goal was to improve health outcomes in under-served communities, workplaces and schools, and to ultimately have an impact on the workforce and the economy in the southern reaches of the state.
The evidence-based programming includes Workplace Wellness, Community Captains, Kids Run Clubs, and Bike/Walk SWV. Supported by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, the West Virginia Development Office, the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, West Virginia University, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, Active SWV reports providing technical assistance and training to more than 250 volunteers who lead their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and families in living a healthier lifestyle, ultimately impacting more than 8,000 individuals.
“Community captains are the heart and soul of this organization,” said Erin Reid, community outreach director of Active SWV. “They’re the shoes on the street inspiring friends and family. It’s a peer-to-peer approach, and one of the main ways we’ve been successful in reaching the community.”
Not only do the volunteer community captains inspire others, but they experience their own accountability.
“They know others are relying on them to show up, to stay consistent,” Seiler said. “The training and support we provide those volunteers is basic leadership. It’s nothing advanced, but just enough level of training that someone can grow as a mentor to people around them.”
She says it’s a simple approach. The key is commitment.
The Active SWV team is certainly dedicated to improving health and wellness. After five years in four counties, the group has expanded in 2020 to include Boone and Kanawha counties.
“We felt we are ready with staffing capacity and the ability to offer programs, both small groups in person and virtual online programs, to areas such as Rt. 3, extending into Boone County and the Upper Kanawha Valley, extending into Kanawha County,” Seiler said.
She said the two additional counties were natural complements to the region, as Raleigh connects with Boone and Fayette connects with Kanawha. The broader reach will strengthen their network of volunteers and programming options.
Volunteer recruitment is currently underway in the newly incorporated counties, and virtual programming is already available to participants in those areas. Active SWV will soon host a seven-week Kids Run Club, which will be open to any child in the state. The group will also welcome 15 additional businesses to the Workplace Wellness program, to which Boone and Kanawha county businesses will be invited to apply.
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Alyce Almond first learned about Workplace Wellness two years ago during an annual meeting hosted by her employer.
She followed up with Active SWV to express her interest in bringing Workplace Wellness to the Beckley branch of the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services.
Through the program, her branch was able to incorporate wellness practices in everyday activities, such as a walking program, the annual Thanksgiving luncheon, a cornhole tournament during the lunch hour, and free wellness workshops offered by the local WVU Extension Office.
“All programs were voluntary, and we found that several employees throughout the building really enjoyed these offerings and learning about how to make our workday a little healthier,” Almond said. “This program has thrived for our Region 1 Partners in Action group because all department managers were committed to working together and also allowed flexibility throughout the workday to participate in the various activities.”
She added, “As a person who strives to be healthy both at work and at home, I felt this program was a natural fit for me to try and incorporate into my office. I work in an office job, which is mostly sedentary, and the Workplace Wellness program helped me with promoting physical activity and healthy choices throughout the workday to my employees. I would encourage anyone to look into starting this program for their office.”
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As the world shifted toward staying at home and utilizing virtual experiences to help slow the spread of Covid-19, Active SWV leaders saw an opportunity to share their programming online.
“Our community captains have been a great resource for us in this virtual time we find ourselves in,” Reid said. “They’ve taken their expertise, along with online resource libraries, to continue providing their communities programming in a digital format.”
Some folks shared online workouts or posted fitness playlists, all to help keep their communities moving. Reid said some in-person programs have been able to restart, all of which are following county and state guidelines.
Seiler said one of the strongest elements of the organization is the social support built within each program. Despite a global pandemic, Active SWV already had the social infrastructure to continue doing its work online.
“Online is a great avenue for communication,” Seiler said. “We were able to maintain contact with our participants through group texting, social posts, an email newsletter and staying in touch with one another to stay motivated and supported.”
The group has even continued expanding its reach during the pandemic, asking current participants to invite friends and family members to participate in the virtual activities.
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Also new in 2020 is a deepened relationship with West Virginia University and the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Through these partnerships, Seiler said Active SWV participants will have access to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evidence-based programs.
Three Active SWV employees took professional development training during West Virginia’s stay-at-home order to become lifestyle coaches for the CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program.
“This CDC program is available to diabetics and pre-diabetics, which will help us target a new demographic,” Seiler said. “It’s a year-long program specifically designed for pre-diabetics so they don’t get full diagnosis.”
The first class will begin in November and will help fulfill one of Active SWV’s missions to help improve the health of southern West Virginians through goal setting, social support and behavioral changes.
As virtual opportunities are fully realized and as state partnerships are expanded upon, both Reid and Seiler foresee Active SWV continuing to grow in coming years.
For more information, visit activeswv.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.