Both Kayley Hanencrat, of Canton, Ohio, and Virginia Burger, of Minnesota, were making return trips.

Hanencrat’s parents also came down for the weekend to help plant 40 trees around the Mullens Opportunity Center, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

“I really love coming here,” Hanencrat said. “People here appreciate it so. It’s nice doing projects where the people are so appreciative.”

Burger returned for the third time last week.

“I’ve made friends here, real friends,” she said. “It’s nice to see how the work you did before is holding up, how it turned out.”

In addition to planting the trees, the students helped clear a Hatfied-McCoy ATV trail near Pineville, painted a bathroom in an area school, cleaned the pavilion in Mullens, among other projects.

Under the direction of RAIL, Houck said, more than 130 students from Columbia, Cornell, Illinois State, Michigan Tech, and University of Illinois Chicago will provide more than 4,000 hours of volunteer community service over the course of a month.

“The lure of our mountains is drawing young folks from universities during their spring break,” Houck said. “When so many young people choose to spend their time at play, it is encouraging that these students will spend their time assisting with projects in our area.

“It gives us hope for the future of the next generation. When so many young people are self-absorbed, it is wonderful to witness this kind of spirit,” he said.

Alongside local residents and AmeriCorps VISTA members, the college students will clean vacant storefront windows in Mullens to make space for local art work, help landscape parks and recreation areas, pull debris from streams and do stream bank restoration, assist with restoration of the Mullens Caboose Museum, among numerous other projects, according to Houck.

Additionally, the students are working in Stotesbury, hometown of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, to restore a local cemetery and Mark Twain School, Byrd’s alma mater.

“This effort is an attempt to salvage some of the history of the early 20th century coal boom culture,” Houck explained.

RAIL was founded by Houck, a Purpose Prize Fellow, who has volunteered for 10 years, utilizing the capacity of AmeriCorps programs and volunteers to build RAIL.

“These students are not only accomplishing important tasks that benefit society, but are working to achieve the goals of RAIL and that is to help people help themselves,” Houck emphasized.

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