“What can I do to help?”

When discussing the legacy of Mary Anne Flournoy after her death last October, Carol Kuhre remembered those words, spoken by Mary Anne whenever there was a problem, a hurdle, a roadblock.

The question has become Rural Action’s motto as COVID-19 runs roughshod over our communities and the local economy. Each of our programs is striving to help Appalachian Ohio weather the storm. It hasn’t been easy. But thanks to video conferencing and a willingness to be flexible and innovate, Rural Action is doing our best to respond to this cry for help in ways that would make Mary Anne — and Rural Action’s members — proud.

Here’s a rundown of what we’re doing to assist in trying times.

The Covid-19 Response Fund Offers Help

As a 501c3 nonprofit, Rural Action is housing an emergency response fund set up by Zach Reizes to be used by local businesses, farmers and community-based organizations in Athens and Perry counties to address the immediate impacts of this region’s coronavirus outbreak. We are willing to host these for any county in Appalachian Ohio that would like to host one. Contact dan@ruralaction.org to get started.

A committee of individuals from several local organizations and nonprofits will make funding decisions. Rural Action will not make those decisions independently, but will be able to accept tax-deductible donations earmarked for this purpose.


Here’s How Businesses Can Be Resilient in Tough Times

Need to Know

Rural Action works directly with entrepreneurs and local businesses to help bolster local economies. These aren’t quick fixes. It takes long-term thinking, asset-based strategies, and in-person collaboration.

COVID-19 has forced the team to step back and rethink that strategy.

“We’re shifting our work from more long-term capacity building to a more in-the-moment, let’s-respond-right-now approach,” says Resilient Communities Coach Dan Vorisek.

Dan’s team will be administering the COVID-19 Response Fund. “That’s our main focus right now,” Dan says. “We have applications in from people seeking emergency assistance. We’re going to convene the review committee to look at applicants and start getting money back out to these folks.”

The Resilient Communities team also created a list of useful links and information regarding state and federal assistance that is available for small businesses. “For many who applied for assistance, these state and federal programs might be more useful to them,” Dan says.

Since in-person meetings are currently out of the question, Rural Action is organizing a conference call with community groups to share resources that are available and to ask what help is needed. Contact Dan if you’d like to be notified when that call is scheduled. We are also willing to help businesses and organizations learn how to use some of the tech platforms to be able to meet and work remotely.

“In some ways, you need to find the silver lining to every cloud” Dan says. This event is bringing out the very best in southeast Ohio communities to assist businesses to weather the storm.”

‘Buy Local’ to Protect Our Local Food Ecosystem

Need to Know

  • Discussions are underway on opening the Chesterhill Produce Auction but no decisions have been reached yet.
  • About 1,000 pounds of fresh and frozen produce have been distributed so far from CPA to programs that feed local children.

Now more than ever, it’s critical to support our local food ecosystem.

“The message would be ‘buy local any way you can,’’’ says Sustainable Agriculture Director Tom Redfern. “Go to the Farmers Market. Buy local food. They’re all pieces of our ecosystem that could get blown up in a year like this and set us back for a decade if we’re not careful to support it now.”

The Sustainable Agriculture team is working with numerous partner organizations to ensure access to local food, and this crisis shows how important these alliances are.

“Now is not a time to be proprietary,” Tom says. “We’re all in this together. The freezers we use are at ACEnet. “We’re partnering a lot with Community Food Initiatives,” Tom says. “They’re our go-to food access partner.” Our partnerships are more crucial than ever. We are having weekly calls with our partners. Having healthy food out there is going to be essential. We’re partnering to figure out strategies to support the farmers and the consumers through all of this.”

It’s important to remember this is a long-term problem that won’t end in a few weeks.

“We’re asking, ‘What do we have to offer each other, and how can we keep it open in a long-term, deliberate, controlled strategy that puts us and our partners in as small a risk as possible?’” Tom says. “We don’t want to run it willy-nilly.”

Tom says about 1,000 pounds of fresh and frozen food has been distributed thus far to programs in Athens County that focus on children. Additionally, Rural Action picked up four pallets of food from Ohio University to redistribute. We’re using our assets to help however we can.

A refrigerated van is making runs from the Chesterhill Produce Auction to local communities to ensure farmers’ goods get to consumers. CPA also is in talks with the Morgan County Health Department to ensure everything is being done safely and according to state rules, and discussions are underway to determine if the auction can be reopened safely.

“There’s a couple hundred acres of produce that’s being planted as we speak,” Tom says. “We have beautiful food, and we’re anticipating distributing that beautiful food.”

Environmental Education to Offer Virtual Lessons

Need to Know

  • The Environmental Education team has launched an online platform that parents and children can use to learn about the outdoors from the safety of their homes and yards. Learn more at the Young Naturalists Club.

As educators across the state are painfully aware, education has been profoundly affected by coronavirus as in-person instruction has given way to digital learning.

“Pretty much all of our work in the next two months was going to be at schools and other physical places, so our normal menu of activities was pretty much nixed,” says Environmental Education Program Manager Darcy Higgins.

This prompted Darcy and other members of the Environmental Education team to launch the Young Naturalists Club, a website that will offer new outdoor activities for young people every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

“Our goal is to support kids, teachers, and families who are suddenly learning from home, by providing interesting, meaningful activities and community,” according to the site.

Another great opportunity for outdoor education is through citizen science and environmental stewardship activities that can be done in small groups, says Environmental Education Program Director Joe Brehm.

Anyone can download a copy of the iNaturalist app and start contributing to the Wayne National Forest BioBlitz, where more than 11,500 observations have been made and almost 3,000 species have been identified so far.

“We also have about 50 nest boxes throughout Athens and a few in Hocking County that are used by tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, and prothonotary warblers,” Joe says. “So we have a lot of maintenance to do on those for the nesting season. Then we’ll be able to check on them a few times a week to see the birds begin nesting.”

Joe recommends homebound nature lovers consider checking out NestWatch, where they can download plans to make their own nest boxes.

Members of AmeriCorps who serve with the Environmental Education team have shifted toward direct stewardship activities, Darcy says. “Instead of teaching people, they’re going out themselves to do litter pickups or invasive removal.”

For more information, contact Darcy at darcy@ruralaction.org

Social Enterprises Get Innovative When the Going Gets Tough

Need to Know

  • For those who are getting stir crazy staying at home, True Pigments, LLC, has released a set of oil paints that were made from pollution in Sunday Creek. They are available for purchase online, and funds will help True Pigments in its efforts to battle acid mine drainage in area waterways.
  • Chesterhill Produce Auction is using a refrigerated truck to transport growers’ products around the region.

Rural Action’s Social Enterprises — Chesterhill Produce Auction, Zero Waste Event Productions, and True Pigments, LLC — are working to navigate a difficult situation. Not surprisingly, innovation is the order of the day.

“It’s giving rise to different ways that the social enterprises can continue to fulfill their missions, but in new ways,” says Social Enterprise Director Paul Patton.

Zero Waste Event Productions, which helps outdoor festivals divert waste from landfills, has seen numerous upcoming events cancel, prompting them to hunker down to think about other ways the business can help foster Zero Waste thinking. One of those ways is looking at waste plastic as a potential asset.

“They’re working with plastics right now,” Paul says. “We’re about to purchase an injector so they can begin making items directly out of recyclable material, taking them in new directions and considering different revenue streams that aren’t necessarily contingent on an event.”

The Chesterhill Produce Auction is doing what it does best — supporting the local food value chain in our region. A refrigerated truck has been making daily runs between Chesterhill and area destinations to ensure growers have access to markets.

As one Chesterhill grower recently said, “We’re going to keep putting seeds in the ground because whatever happens, we’re pretty sure people will need to eat.”

Farmers and producers also can apply for zero-interest, no-fee loans through Kiva, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to capital for entrepreneurs around the world. Rural Action can endorse and partially fund loans on Kiva to make sure the money arrives as soon as possible.

One example of a Kiva application that’s in the works is an effort to acquire equipment that will grade the quality of wool for making fiber and textiles. And Snowville Creamery recently ran a successful campaign to raise a $15,000 loan to replace a yogurt filler — a piece of equipment that supports 20% of their business.

Reach out to Paul for more information about Kiva loans.

True Pigments, LLC, which has created a process to clean streams by turning iron oxide from acid mine discharge into marketable pigment, has been the least affected of Rural Action’s three social enterprises, though a paint release party recently was canceled. Never fear. The Gamblin Artists Colors paints — Reclaimed Earth Colors — can be purchased online, offering a possible artistic diversion for folks sheltering in place.

Get Renewable Energy Training While Sheltering at Home

Need to Know

  • Solar Energy International, a nonprofit providing industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy, is offering discounts for its online coursework.

Here’s a bright spot in the midst of the coronavirus gloom — the Athens County Foundation-funded Grow Solar Jobs Initiative is moving forward, undaunted by quarantines.

That’s because the program — which is offering solar industry training to five successful local applicants — is all online thanks to Solar Energy International’s training platform.

“It’s great that each participant can do this work from home — it’s all online,” says Sustainable Energy Solutions Director Sarah Conley-Ballew. “It’s also worth noting that SEI is offering discounts for their classes in general. If anyone is considering a job in the solar industry, now is a good time to get affordable online training at a great price.”

Sarah says other SES initiatives also are moving forward despite the disruption caused by coronavirus.

Zero Waste Team ‘Rolling With the Punches’

Need to Know

  • Zero Waste and other community organizations are working together to figure out the best ways to safely minimize waste while OU students move out following OU’s cancellation of in-person classes for the rest of the semester.

Rural Action’s Zero Waste program is grappling with several curveballs thrown by the coronavirus crisis, with a key one being how to handle move-out at Ohio University.

Traditionally, the effort has been designed to ensure as much of the material as possible is recycled or diverted to local second-hand stores for resale as students leave Athens at the end of spring semester. But after OU canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester, students began trickling in to retrieve their possessions so it’s unlikely to be concentrated in a single weekend. Plus, it’s important to think about the safety of volunteers who help with the recycling effort.

During a recent call, stakeholders from local nonprofits, OU, landlords, and government met to discuss the situation and are focusing on ways to collect mattresses, distribute packaged food from the apartments, and offer dumpsters for students to use while disposing of things. These issues still are in discussion stages.

“There is potential for better outcomes for future move outs based on this shakeup that’s happening this year,” says Zero Waste Director Ed Newman.

While Zero Waste has seen a similar impact on several other initiatives, the pause in some current operations has opened the door for more long-range planning and work on projects that had been back-burnered because of current work.

“What I’m most excited about is I’m getting ready to do a bunch of quarterly reports,” Ed says with a laugh.

There is a positive side.

“In some ways we’re almost communicating better now,” Ed says, prompting Zero Waste Program Manager Anthony Cangemi to chime in, “I agree with that.” (The discussion, like most discussions at Rural Action these days, is happening via a video chat conference call.)

“We’re rolling with the punches,” Ed says. “In the end, we’re going to make everything work even better.”

Watershed Program Keeping Waterways Clean Despite Crisis

Need to Know

  • For those of us enjoying nature as a means to escape home confinement, know that the Watershed team is working to ensure the water quality in our waterways doesn’t degrade from lack of treatment.
  • As mentioned earlier, True Pigments, LLC, has released a set of oil paints that were made from pollution in Sunday Creek. They are available for purchase online, and funds will help battle acid mine drainage in area waterways.

While many tasks can be deferred during the coronavirus crisis, doser maintenance can’t without causing water quality to degrade in local waterways.

“I’ve been doing maintenance pretty much as normal,” says Water Quality Specialist Tim Ferrell. “Hopefully, we won’t have any breakdowns. We have authorized our folks to drive separately (Rural Action normally encourages staffers to car pool when possible) and keep a safe distance from each other while working outside.”

Dosers drop limestone into the water at regular intervals to mitigate the impact of acid mine drainage from historical coal mining. The limestone changes the pH of the AMD-tainted water, making it a safe habitat for numerous aquatic species.

“We need to keep the dosers running,” Tim explains. “The dosers are really critical. If they’re not running for a week or so, the water quality starts going downhill quickly.”

Another key mission of the Watershed Program is education.

“We’re trying to look into virtual outreach to education,” says Watershed Program Director Nate Schlater. “All the AmeriCorps members in the Watershed Program have met with Rural Action’s Environmental Education team, and there are plans being put together on how this can happen. We’re trying to figure out a path to get the Watershed outreach education completed virtually.”

One example of this is figuring out how to conduct the “Passport to Fishing” program remotely. The team would like to use the grant funds to get fishing poles distributed to area children, as a good, healthy outdoor activity during a time when many families are looking for ways for their children to stay active.

The Watershed Program is also working to find applicants for grants from the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Program, a federally funded initiative that supports reclamation of previously mined lands so they can be used for economic development projects.

“Ohio has received $10 million dollars for projects for the fourth year now, says Marissa Lautzenheiser, Middle Tuscarawas Watershed Coordinator. “We have a contract with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop projects, and we have a grant with Appalachian Voices, New York Community Trust and the Just Transition Fund to find and lift up innovative projects that help with a ‘just transition’ of our economy.”

More details will be released about this initiative during the next several weeks, but if you are aware of a possible AML project in Pennsylvania, Alabama, or Kentucky, let Marissa know so it can be considered.

Rural Action Emphasizes Self-Care for Staff

As the stories above indicate, Rural Action staffers aren’t going into the office these days, but they are moving mountains from their living rooms, backyards, and home offices, sometimes with their children and pets cheering them on.

Rural Action is using several Zoom video conferencing accounts to make it easy to collaborate and respond quickly to the situation on the ground. And when those Zoom accounts are not in use, CEO Debbie Phillips encourages the staff to use them to stay in touch with family and loved ones they are separated from.

“During evening and weekend hours, so long as organizational meetings are not scheduled, you may use either of the host accounts to have a Zoom conference with the folks you love.” Debbie said in an email to all staff. “You might have a virtual dinner with your family, a group visit with friends, a singalong, or figure out how to plan virtual apples to apples (let me know if you get that sorted).”

In conversations with each program, one thing is clear: The health and safety of our staff, service members and our communities take priority as we strive to find the best ways to help Appalachian Ohio stay strong through trying times.

Follow us on Social Media

Did you know Rural Action is now the proud owner of the worst acid mine discharge in the state of Ohio? Or that Environmental Education AmeriCorps member Madison Donohue has been offering nature lessons on Facebook for children at The Hive of Nelsonville? These are just a few of the stories we ran on social media recently. If you haven’t already done so, please consider following us on your favorite flavor of social media. The more followers and fans we have, the broader our reach, the better we’re able to help make Appalachian Ohio an even better place to live and work. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedInand Instagram. Come join the conversation.