Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin was in Athens on April 13 to meet with the steering committee of the Central Appalachian Network and learn about collaborative work across several states in the region. One leg of the tour focused on the Reuse Corridor, a multi-state effort to reduce waste and get materials to places they can be used. This project was brought to life for the group through a visit to Upcycle Ohio Thrift and Community Makerspace to tour the facility and learn how this Rural Action social enterprise is helping to fight addiction and foster zero waste initiatives throughout the region.

Rural Action CEO Debbie Phillips explained how the community rallied to save the thrift and makerspace, and then Chief Innovation Officer Paul Patton led Manchin, her staff, and members of the Central Appalachian Network and other regional partners on a tour of the facility at 751 West Union Street in Athens.

“Last week’s visit was such a great opportunity to highlight the way that our organizations collaborate in a sector-based approach that is rooted in local assets and the resilience of the people of the region,” Phillips said after the tour. “By investing in these collaborative projects, the ARC supports local communities in building on their own strengths and helping to diversify our economy. Co-Chair Manchin really understands both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us – we were excited to be able to share our work with her team.”

During the tour, Manchin had an opportunity to see the production area where Passion Works Studio upcycles used newspaper plates that it uses in creating Passion Flowers. She also learned about the Tool Library, managed by Athens County Public Libraries. Patton explained that tools can be borrowed free in a manner similar to the way books are borrowed.

“Well, that re-defines a library card,” Manchin joked, drawing laughs from the crowd.

The group moved into the woodshop, where they learned how woodworking is being used to help battle addiction. One person in recovery is about to graduate from Hocking College after learning about woodworking at the Makerspace and deciding to pursue an education in it. Patton also noted that in 2021, 35 scholarships were awarded, allowing people interested in woodworking to begin building skills that could help them find employment. Rural Action’s Chesterhill Produce Auction holds monthly auctions featuring wood products that create a potential market for the people working in the Makerspace woodshop.

The group also spent time at the Thrift Store, where Coalfield Development Conservation Director Jacob Hannah explained how the Reuse Corridor networks the region’s zero waste efforts, sending materials to local entities like the thrift for processing, upcycling, and recycling. Hannah noted a bin full of fabrics that the group had viewed earlier is destined for The Neighborhood in Ashland, KY, for processing. These efforts benefit the environment while creating opportunities for local businesses. Rural Action Zero Waste Director Ed Newman told Manchin about the success of efforts to recycle and reuse medical equipment, which is processed by MedWish in Cleveland.

While the group listened to Thrift Manager Sadie Meade discuss the store’s role in zero waste efforts, a toddler wandered by, trailing his mother as she perused the clothing racks. Several other shoppers weaved through the group, showing the economic impact of the enterprise.

Sam Miller, a Rural Action board member, had a chance to explain to Manchin why this work is so important. Miller grew up in Appalachian Ohio and graduated from Ohio University, then spent a year in Rural Action’s AmeriCorps program, which provided her with the experience she needed to work for Sen. Sherrod Brown and for her current role as Development Director for Buckeye Hills Regional Council.

“I wanted to stay here when I graduated and didn’t know how,” Miller said. “AmeriCorps showed me.”