- Associated Press - Saturday, March 31, 2018

FOSTER, W.Va. (AP) - Between coal mines, mountains and rivers, there is one resource in Southern West Virginia educators at Boone Career and Technical Center feel is untapped - the kindness of its people.

“There is no place that has hospitality like Southern West Virginia has,” said Robert Miller, instructor of the center’s adventure tourism management program. “The people are golden here - that’s true in times of crisis, but really every regular day. They’re kind and welcoming in a way that’s hard to find other places.”

Miller said he believes this penchant for kindness, in addition to the natural beauty of the region, is what can make Southern West Virginia’s tourism industry thrive.

Launched four years ago, the adventure tourism management program at BCTC has been working to instill that same belief in Boone County high schoolers.

“(The students) know a lot about Southern West Virginia, and they know a lot about four-wheeling, fishing, hunting and things that are special to us,” Miller said. “There is still a lot, though, that they haven’t experienced here, and hopefully we can help them see some of those things.”

The program offers juniors and seniors in the county’s high schools hands-on experience in everything from life sciences and agriculture, to marketing, hospitality and budgeting.

“This class alone added so much variety to my education other than sitting at a desk and doing book work,” said Brooke Burns, a junior at Scott High School in Madison. “It’s helped me develop in ways I never really thought about - I learned how to connect with people, to network. It taught me how to be professional, but friendly. That’s what tourism is. You have to be friendly and give people a reason to want to come back somewhere.”

In the four years since the program was launched by Jeff Nelson, former principal and director of BCTC, interest among students has tripled. The inaugural program had about 13 students enrolled. Today, there are 41, which Nelson said could be due to a growing respect for tourism and outdoor attractions - like the Hatfield-McCoy Trails and the Big Coal River - within Boone County.

“A lot of improvements are happening here in our area. We believe folks are starting to open their eyes to the prospects Southern West Virginia has to offer,” said Nelson, who retired as principal last year and currently works as a substitute math instructor.

When it was first developed in 2013, the program emphasized being “forward-thinking,” Nelson said, which is a quality Miller still focuses on in the classes.

“Coal has been in decline, but we all are hoping for its return here in Southern West Virginia. What we want to do, though, is introduce these students to all the different types of tourism jobs out there - especially in our beautiful state,” Miller said. “We all in Boone County support coal. We all know the importance of jobs, but we need to learn the importance of nature and where that balance lies.”

Students in the program take regular trips around West Virginia to study and experience the state’s natural attractions. They’ve gotten to explore Canaan Valley, hike Spruce Knob and whitewater raft at New River Gorge, among other things.

Through the trips, Miller tries to instill in the students the connections with everything in the state. This, he hopes, helps build the students’ respect for the things surrounding them.

“It has given me a lot of appreciation for things I didn’t think about before. On my drive home, for instance, I can see the split in the mountains and study the rocks I see there, and I know what I’m looking at,” said Kaylea Egnor, a junior at Scott High School. “This class made me realize how cool the outdoors are and what you can do if you decide to pay attention.”

To pay for the trips in the program, the students are responsible for planning events to raise money, which is just one of the real-world tasks they undertake.

“You get the opportunity to see the jobs people get and how they actually apply this degree you might be thinking about,” said Burns, who plans to study geology in college. “I don’t want to waste time figuring out what I want to do when I get to college, and this helped me make up my mind.”

The students regularly undertake projects that teach them about the world around them. They are responsible for writing grant proposals for some of these projects - one of which lead to them planting 52 trees around BCTC to form a riparian buffer, which protects the water running in a creek around the building from contamination from cars and oil.

The class has produced radio commercials for different organizations and events, and it creates and follows budgets when it gets involved in event planning.

“They’re doing things just like they would if they were hired by a company,” said Allen Halley, current director and principal at BCTC. “Those in the adventure tourism program, they’re the leaders of this school, for the most part.”

All of these skills - leadership, writing, social media, organizing, budgeting and more - are things that can be applied to a vast number of professions, so even if the students don’t plan to pursue anything in tourism, they’re prepared for their futures.

Miller communicates regularly with the adventure tourism programs at West Virginia’s colleges, many of which have high job placement rates within the Mountain State.

“We don’t want our best students to feel like they have to relocate for opportunity. We want them to find that here,” Miller said. “There are some negative connotations of living in Southern West Virginia, and it’s up to us to break those. There’s no place with people nicer or with people willing to work harder.”

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.


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