Appalachian Studies students give life to Clinch River stories

From left: Celeste Chorniak, Caroline Leggett, Lauren Landreth, Radford University Appalachian Studies Director Theresa Burriss and Earl Gohl, ARC federal co-chair.

People who live in small towns along the Clinch River have countless stories to tell about living, growing and working within their communities.

The Clinch River Valley Initiative (CRVI), a multi-member grassroots organization comprised of several Southwest Virginia counties, has taken on a project to collect and share those stories.

CRVI’s goal is to offer environmental education to people of all ages and to revitalize and market downtowns along the river, as well as boost entrepreneurial opportunities.

To help, a small group of Radford University students spent the fall semester interviewing people living along the river in St. Paul and Dungannon. The effort was a partnership among Radford University, CRVI and the Appalachian Regional and Rural Studies Center.

“We conducted oral interviews with residents of this area, particularly the town of St. Paul, to not only commemorate their experiences but to approach the question of community sustainability in the Appalachian region,” said Lauren Landreth, a Recreation, Parks and Tourism major from Radford.

Landreth, along with fellow students Celeste Chorniak and Caroline Leggett, became involved with the project through a course taught by Appalachian Studies Director Theresa Burriss.

Landreth interviewed former coal miners, the St. Paul Elementary School principal, the town’s mayor and a woman who runs an organization that offers volunteer service for area residents, “all of whom gave interesting and diverse accounts of growing up and working in the region,” she said.

Stories collected by the Radford University trio will be included in a book that will be sold at Clinch River venues and online. Select audio clips from the interviews will be used in kiosks along the river and can be used on community and business websites and in paddling itineraries, Burriss said.

“CRVI is investing in its river, one of the most bio-diverse in the world,” said Leggett, an interdisciplinary studies major from Salem who is minoring in Appalachian Studies and biology.

The students presented their research findings in December at the 16th Annual Appalachian Teaching Project in Washington, D.C.

More than 150 students from 14 colleges and universities, representing 11 Appalachian states, presented their community-based research at the conference. In the audience were Appalachian Regional Commission officials, including ARC federal co-chair Earl Gohl.

In their presentation, Landreth focused on how St. Paul is working to diversify its economy while maintaining the town’s traditions and history. Chorniak and Leggett focused on environment and education.

“Together, we connected all three aspects to describe how vital they are to the sustainability of the region,” Landreth said. “As these communities transition from a coal-based focus to more diverse lifestyles and incomes, we wanted to emphasize how important it is to understand the community's history, as well as to use that history to ensure the future of the region.”

Landreth said it was “amazing” to be able to do this level of research as an undergraduate student.

“Having taken an Appalachian Studies class before, it was interesting to see materials we had covered in class in a first-hand perspective,” Landreth said. “I enjoy talking and listening to our interviewees, and this project was a great way to connect that with my education.”

Jan 17, 2017
Chad Osborne