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Coal River VISTA worker finds niche in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You could say the banjo brought her here. But that's only half right. In West Virginia, 25-year-old Texan Sara Cottingham found the best of the two worlds that move her.

A banjo player lured primarily by her passion for traditional Appalachian music, she's also a fierce environmental advocate with a background in preserving natural resources and revitalizing areas around them.

She's finishing her second year here as a VISTA volunteer assigned to the Coal River Group, a nonprofit organization working to restore, manage and promote the Coal River watershed.

Exuberant and athletic (a champion rower), well-traveled (four continents), well-educated (fluent in four languages), she felt an immediate affinity for West Virginia. She calls it "an inextricable calling."

Here, she finally learned to play the fiddle, the instrument she was drawn to in childhood. (No wonder those Suzuki violin lessons didn't last.)

The community and the Coal River volunteers opened their arms to her. She plans on sticking around.

 

"I was born in Hawaii. My dad was a pilot for Continental Airlines. He and my mom are native Texans back five or six generations. By the time my sister started school, they were ready to move back. They settled northeast of Houston. I was about 3.

"I have a really close extended family, most from the Austin area. I spent every holiday with uncles, aunts, cousins, my grandmother. I consider Austin my hometown.

"They're a pretty eccentric bunch, curious about all kinds of different things, arts, music, sports. My mom worked for the Houston Chronicle and then for the Harris County Democratic Party.

"I wrote my first book when I was 7. I'd been learning about Texas history, so my story was about Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, the fathers of Texas.

"I started taking German in the seventh grade. Everyone else took Spanish, and I wanted to be different. I love languages. In high school, my German teacher was one of those teachers who change your life. I spent three years having conversations with him in German.

"My family took me to a frontier Christmas thing when I was about 5, and there was this little girl playing the fiddle. I wanted to do that. My mom started me out on the Suzuki violin. I thought, 'Oh, this is lame.' After two years, that fizzled out.

"I played concert clarinet through middle school and high school. I liked it, but the music didn't speak to me. Since I moved here, I've started playing fiddle. I went 20 years cold turkey without playing. There are so many good fiddle players here. I've been playing fiddle over a year now. I took to it immediately.

"I was always passionate about the environment. I decided to go to the University of Texas for the in-state tuition. I'd already taken my first two years of college in high school, honors classes that were entry-level college classes, so I came to college as a junior.

"I wanted to study abroad every year and take languages and my environmental classes. But then I started rowing. I was in Alaska on a glacier mountaineering course sitting on top of the mountain I had climbed. My instructor said the most meaningful experience of his life was rowing in college. We're on a glacier in the middle of nowhere, and he says rowing is where it's at?

"So I walked on the team. It became my whole world for the next three years. I was training for the national team. We won the first-ever Big 12 Championship for women's rowing. By the end of the first year, I was on full scholarship and flew across country to compete. I competed in Canada and Germany, too.

"One day, the counselor called me in and said, 'Sara, you have to graduate.' I said, 'No, don't make me graduate.' I wanted to stay on the team. She asked if I'd considered graduate school. So I applied and was able to stay. I had my bachelor's and master's on a rowing scholarship by the time I was 21.

"I studied in Germany, then did an internship in Idaho with the U.S. Forest Service. Idaho was transformational. It shaped the way I viewed natural resources issues. Dealing with loggers, miners, ranchers and the Forest Service took everything I'd learned off the pages of a book and put them into real life.

"I was in a little town of 500 people in the middle of nowhere. I was working for a hydrologist doing watershed restoration where they had mined gold.

"It was engaging to me to be working with these crusty gold miners. I realized I was drawn to rural mountain communities, the ones most people don't care about.

"They had no job opportunities and they had serious issues from gold mining. I thought, 'What do you do to fix that and make this place livable?'

"I'm very frugal. I didn't care about money as long as I could cover my bases and get incredible experience.

"In Idaho, I bought a banjo online for my 21st birthday. I bought a bluegrass book. It was hard. In a local music shop, they asked me if I'd ever heard clawhammer banjo. They showed me some basic hand positions, and I thought, 'Oh, this is so much easier!' My brain just kicked with the old-time traditional Appalachian music. I wanted to learn the techniques.

"I took one lesson from the best clawhammer player in Austin. He said he wouldn't give me another lesson. He said I was too good. He recorded some songs for me, and that's how I learned. I threw the books out.

"I got a job with the state environmental agency in drinking water. It was a desk job doing regulatory compliance. I knew I wasn't going to be there forever. I would get a year's worth of experience with the second-largest environmental agency in the world.

"I kept thinking back to my experience in Idaho and how engaged I was with the miners in those towns and doing that work. But I was also really serious about the banjo. I realized suddenly that the east is where the music is from. So I went to a music camp in Asheville, N.C., a gathering of old-time musicians.

"These old-timers in overalls come out from the hills and play the most amazing music you've ever heard. I wanted to be in the place where the music is from and soak it up like a sponge.

"That was the light bulb. I wanted to go to Appalachia, half for the music and half for my career ambitions. You have mountains here and coal mining instead of gold, but there are a lot of the same issues about revitalizing the economy.

"Looking for jobs in Appalachia on Google, the first thing on the list was always the Appalachian Coal Country Team, my VISTA program.

"I wasn't looking for something specific. I look at the big picture. You have to have a clean river, but you also have to have jobs so people can live there. The Coal Company Team places VISTA workers. They connect nonprofits or small towns that need some help accomplishing their projects and recruit college-educated people to come in.

"They addressed the economic side, watershed side and the whole picture, community development and connected me with several nonprofits, all in West Virginia.

"The first time I talked to [Coal River Group founder] Bill Currey, I really felt a connection. This mission is all encompassing for developing the Coal River watershed. It's not just water sampling and monitoring and not just recreation. It's the whole picture of bringing life back to the Coal Rivers.

"I started last February. Coming from Texas, we have one river in the hill country that is as gorgeous as the Coal River. So when I saw the Coal, I thought, oh my goodness! Something told me this is where I need to be.

"I am the only full-time volunteer here so I wear a lot of hats. I view a VISTA volunteer as a consultant. The board says they want to do these projects, an education program, a monitoring program, but they don't know quite how to do it. My job is helping them figure it out, give them new ideas. And by just physically having a person here, they can accomplish so much more.

"I'm finishing my second year. There's nowhere else I want to be. I love it. People always say, 'Do you have culture shock?' No. I feel right at home.

"When I was moving up here, I didn't know anybody. But I had friends in Hillsville, Va., who had friends in Charleston, Bill and Becky Kimmons. Bill started calling around telling people they were getting a new banjo player, a girl from Texas.

"Being the daughter of a pilot, I've traveled on four continents, and I've loved lots of different places, but this is the only place where they latched on and said, 'You are home now. We are your new family.' I'm so fortunate to have this wonderful work experience with the Coal River people. But also, my music community is my family now.

"I play with a couple of groups. I have a band out of Lewisburg, the Alleghany Hellbenders.

"I'd like to stay in the Kanawha Valley. I love writing grants and doing so many different things. Bill Currey has been such a mentor to me. His background is business. He opened my eyes to a whole world of managing a nonprofit, which is like managing a business.

"I'm thinking about doing contract grant writing and consulting for nonprofits. I'll find a way to stay."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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