Lobelia resident Erica Marks has always had a vision for an experiential education center and, in the past year, the vision has come to fruition in the creation of Yew Mountain Center.
Ten years ago when Marks and her husband, Paolo, moved to Lobelia, she kept an eye on an old B&B which was a mile down the road from their home. It wasn’t in operation and she knew it would be a great location for her center, if the opportunity ever arose to purchase it.
“I thought this would be such a great place for a camp, but also to have program experiences for people who come,” Marks said. “The seed was planted a long time ago.”
In 2015, John and Dawn Meyer, who were dear friends with the B&B’s late owner, Allen Marr, began The Marr Foundation, a getaway for families with special needs children.
The Foundation was going to utilize the B&B and its 500 acres for special programs and outdoor adventures for guest families.
Sadly, Dawn died in a car accident the same year. Several months later, John was informed that the Marr estate was selling the B&B and he could not continue with his project.
“It was a really sad situation,” Marks said. “He turned to the community and said, ‘we need ideas. We don’t want to see it just go on the block and go to the highest bidder.’ I kind of sprang into action and said ‘this is an opportunity.’”
The problem was, the property and B&B were being sold for $1.6 million, a sum not readily available. Marks turned to the community and even with a lot of support, they couldn’t come up with nearly enough to purchase the facility out right.
Then Marks got sick, which, to her, was lucky because it gave her time to create a draft proposal for using the B&B as an educational center.
“I had this stroke of luck,” she said. “I got really sick in March of last year. I got strep throat and shingles, and so that left me bedridden. Which, I had to be that sick to be allowed to stay in bed with three little kids and a job. The only thing I could do was put things together on a website. This was after lots of emails back and forth between neighbors.”
Marks worked with her “co-conspirator,” Dr. Bob Must, to assemble the website and include the kinds of programs the center would provide and a budget for sustaining the facility.
“We just got really excited about turning it into an educational center, and so I put it all on a website,” Marks said. “We got these plans. We worked on a budget together. We worked on making all these course des- criptions of what we could have.”
The premise for the center is to have visitors come for weekend retreats with indoor and outdoor educational programs and keynote speakers. While the beauty of Pocahontas County is draw enough for some, Marks wanted to add to the experience and give visitors something more.
“The idea that there would be some young professionals or families who wanted an authentic mountain experience would come and they would make that drive for a long weekend,” she said. “We came up with all these programs we thought would fit the place really well.”
Once the website and draft plan were finished, Marks and neighbors on board with the program emailed the plan to everyone they knew and asked them to send it out. It went out like a chain letter, but had actual substance which attracted interest.
To Marks, it was a slim chance to find individuals or a business that would be willing to foot the bill for the property to help the center get started.
That slim chance panned out, though. Marks was contacted by a conservation-minded business which was interested in the proposal. The business sent an individual to scope out the facility and meet with Marks in order to get a better feel for all that is involved.
“I think it was early in April when this happened, and I was just so nervous because, I think it’s such a beautiful place, but this is somebody who does conservation work all over Appalachia –she knows lots of beautiful places and maybe it’s not going to hold up to everything she sees,” Marks said. “She was blown away. She loved it.
“Some of the neighbors drove by when we were walking back to the facility and she just had such positive interactions with the people here, and the land,” Marks continued. “She gave a glowing report back to the people who hired her to come and then scheduled another visit with the prospective buyer. All the neighbors got together and we did a huge potluck and went for hikes in the woods. She definitely got a sense of this community and the land.”
After the visit, it was clear, they had found their financial backer. They spent the summer in negotiations and closed on the deal in November.
In the meantime, the center was named Yew Mountain Center, a non-profit organization, the board was organized and the budget was prepared so that when it was time to officially start fundraising, they could hit the ground running.
And they did.
Moments after the ink was dry on the lease, the board of neighbors who were there from the beginning helped Marks raise more than $25,000 in just a few months.
With a lease and some money in the budget, it was time to focus on the programming and preparing the building for visitors.
“It’s probably more of a three-season facility,” Marks said. “The building is pretty inefficient. We want to promote sustainable practices as must as we can and yet we have this behomoth of a building that is inefficient to keep warm. So we’re winterized now and there’s not going to be lodging for people through the winter. Someday we hope to maybe redesign the building and do as much as we can to keep it open a little bit longer.”
Marks doesn’t want to implement too much too soon, but she does know that she wants programs at the center to be low cost or even free to local individuals and families who want to participate.
“I have kind of an analogy I’m trying out, which is a bicycle,” she said. “The back wheel, which is connected to the pedals and the chain, the power source, is the out-of-town, paying visitors who come for the programs and then the front wheel is the local families and they are steering the program. So they are equals, both wheels are important, but one is kind of pushing us and giving us momentum to be able to do the stuff locally.”
The plan for programs is visitors who are spending the weekend would come in on Friday afternoon or evening. Then they would have workshops during the day, whether it be inside or outside; a break in the afternoon; and an evening keynote by the presenter. Sunday would have more programming before the visitors leave.
Marks has plenty of ideas for different programs which are Appalachian specific and utilize the nature of Pocahontas County, as well as the creativity of its people.
“I’m thinking something around ramps and having people come to learn how to find them and cook different things with them, and have a ramp camp,” she said. “That’s what we call it on our website. We could be out on the property birding or learning fungus identification or looking at the wild medicinals or wild edibles that are native and growing here.”
She is also considering quilting retreats and craft and music-oriented programs.
“We would love to have a quilting retreat there and really showcase some of the crafts of this area,” Marks said. “We actually want to have a gift shop there where we would be selling local crafts – just to give one more little market.”
The Center already has its first booking – a group of young women writers who are coming Memorial Day weekend. The ladies are using the weekend as their retreat, but they also plan to offer a workshop or something similar to the community.
Marks said she hopes most of the groups using the center will be willing to do the same. She even plans to offer a discount to those who do.
“The idea is, whoever wants to rent out the facilities, if they have a community enhancement aspect of it, where they are offering something back to the area, then they get a big discount,” she said.
Along with planning new programs, Marks hopes to be included in current programs offered in the area. She thinks it would be great to collaborate with the Wild Edibles Festival and Little Levels Heritage Fair to expand on the programs offered during both those events.
All in all, it has taken Marks 20 years to get to this point and, in the last year, it has been a whirlwind of excitement and heartwarming experiences.
“It’s just been amazing the support we’ve gotten already,” she said. “Asking for money is not an easy thing for me, but it’s been almost magical. It’s been so rewarding – not that lots of people gave a whole lot of money – but so many people gave something. It’s just really motivating.”
To learn more about the Yew Mountain Center or to make a donation to the cause, visit http://www.yewmountain.org
Donations may also be made by snail mail to Yew Mountain Center, PO Box 202, Hillsboro, WV 24946.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org