Sarah Riley is an Appalachian girl and she’s not going to apologize for that. Instead, in 1995, she and her mother, Susan Burt, developed a program for Appalachian girls and called it High Rocks.
For the past 20 years, mother and daughter have nurtured and empowered the young women of the Appalachian mountains, especially here in Pocahontas County, to become leaders and business owners.
As a way to thank Riley for her efforts, alumni and current High Rocks girls nominated her for the Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award which is given each year by the Appalachian Studies Association.
To the nominators’ delight and to Riley’s shock, she was selected.
“I was totally shocked that I won it, and High Rocks won it,” Riley said. “I think I am the second person from West Virginia to ever win the award, and I’m also the youngest person. I’m also the first person to be recognized for work on behalf of young people.”
According to the Appalachian Studies Association website, the award is “given to an individual or an organization that has made exemplary contributions to Appalachia through involvement with and service to its people and communities.
The award was established in 2001 and honors educator and activist Helen Lewis – a woman who inspires Riley in the work she does.
“She helped start the first department of Appalachian Studies,” Riley said. “She’s an activist and a scholar. She did a lot of work in the field of Appalachian Studies, but she also did a lot of work with the Highland Center and social justice issues.”
A board of scholars reviews the nominations and selects the winner.
“This is a community of scholars saying ‘Sarah Riley and High Rocks has been a significant influence in the region,’ in particular in the work that we have done in the region,” Riley said.
While Riley was the recipient of the award, she shares the honor with High Rocks, the place to which she has given her heart and soul. With this recognition, she hopes High Rocks will become more widely known and that it will be able to expand on the programs it already provides to the youth of Appalachia.
“I definitely hope that it helps the work that High Rocks is doing become more well-known across the region, but especially in Pocahontas County,” Riley said. “I am very, very, very proud of the work with young women that we have done, particularly in Pocahontas County – it’s my home county. Even though we do lots of other things, too.”
In the past 20 years, hundreds of young ladies have attended the High Rocks for Girls camp. To Riley, their successes become High Rocks successes, as well.
“To elevate the accomplishments of people like Selina King who is the bank manager at Pendleton Community Bank,” she said. “Valerie Monico who is a physician’s assistant at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital and Kendra Taylor and Renae Anderson who are both first generation college students, who are now working at the High Rocks and running programs for another generation of young women.
“Andrea Hefner, she is the first alumni president of the High Rocks board,” she continued. “I am so proud of the accomplishments of those young women and hundreds of other young women that we’ve worked with in the last twenty years. I hope it elevates their success. I hope that High Rocks continues to be as it’s already been, as a place where people come and study and do work.”
Along with working with girls and young women, High Rocks also operates the AmeriCorps program and Grow Appalachia program, as well as other community programs in Pocahontas County.
“We work with grown-ups and families and seniors and the women at the Birthing Center and Marlinton Middle School,” Riley said. “We do all of those things.”
Looking toward the future, Riley said she would love to expand and work with boys and young men, as well, and have a High Rocks camp for boys.
“We would love to do more work with boys, while maintaining a sacred and safe place for girls to be able to come and just be girls without the pressure of being with boys at the same time,” Riley said. “In terms of an intensive summer program for boys, I think it’s desperately needed. As a mother of boys and watching so many boys in West Virginia and across Appalachia – some of them are doing great, but overall, boys are really facing hardships. They really need a program like High Rocks.”
In the same vein as the girls’ program, Riley said she thinks a camp for boys needs to be operated by boys. The majority of the staff at the camp for girls are women. To be as successful with boys as they are with girls, they need men to offer guidance and be mentors like the women do for the girls.
After 20 years of service, Riley believes High Rocks has only one possible outcome in the future – educating and serving more young Appalachians.
“I think that High Rocks will continue to be a place where people come to think about how we can educate the whole child and how to do that,” she said. “I think High Rocks will continue to be a learning lab where we figure out how to work with young people and how to try to grow a healthy non-profit.
“The story of High Rocks is amazing,” she continued. “We started with nothing. In 1995, we started with nothing and this is 2015, so in twenty years, out of nothing, together as a community, we built an amazing program with amazing results.”
As for the award, well, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I cannot think of a better twentieth birthday present for High Rocks and to celebrate that journey than to receive this award,” Riley said. “And, I am turning forty in August and I couldn’t think of a better fortieth birthday present for me. Best birthday present ever.”
The award ceremony was held during the 38th Annual ASA Conference at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, March 27 through 29.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org