"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 san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.