It's hard to tell what the large pile of tightly woven mud, rocks, and twigs is down in the creek. The only way for the inexperienced to know for sure is to ask the fifth-grader who helped build the structure as she stands knee-deep in water.
The same elementary school kid who can tell you the structure is a dam can also tell you how to measure turbidity levels. She and her buddies have gotten an up-close look at a hawk, studied macroinvertibrates, seined for fish, learned about plants, trees, snakes, insects, and birds, and studied the history of the region. In addition, they learned how coal mining turned the creek orange and what people are doing to turn it around. All in five days.
That's how long the annual Monday Creek Day Camp lasts, and to say the least they pack a lot into each day. The camps were founded by Rural Action, a local sustainable development group, to get kids interested in their communities and how to better the places where they each live.
The camp also gets kids outside. Seeing nature up close "creates that sense of wonder and knowledge about how to live in your natural environment that seems to have an impact," says Michelle Decker, Executive Director of Rural Action. "We don't understand what we've lost by not letting kids just explore. The ability to name things in nature and understand them is one of the most primary things that a child cares about."
Monday Creek was a dead creek from acid mine flows, but with Rural Action's help since 1994, it's coming back to life. The project now is a leader nationally in treating creeks affected by acid mine drainage . Rural Action, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and Wayne National Forest, is getting $20 million over 10 years to restore the creek to a warm water habitat.
"We already have fish where there were no fish. And we increased the number of different fish species. So we know certain technologies can work. It's only the second creek in Central Appalachia where this has been done, so it'll be a model. When people go back and try to rebuild mountain top removal affected creeks, this work will be a piece of the model they follow," says Decker.
And kids are part of the process. The kids at camp come away knowing the science about why acid mine drainage happens and what people are trying to do to change it. Rural Action runs the Monday Creek Day Camp every summer. "We have offices located in four small mining communities…It's about making the work we're passionate about meaningful to the community," says Decker.
A membership organization, Rural Action was created in 1991 to engage people in the region to build a new vision of sustainability and strategies to change policy instead of just fighting ground-level injustices. Along with environmental restoration, sustainable economic development is core to the work at Rural Action. Rural Action thinks of these two goals in the context of local communities. "It's a bigger system of people who are trying to regionalize the economy, increase resilience, and engage the next generation on a number of different issues," says Decker. "In the past our projects would be in community, environment, or economic development work, but more and more we're trying to find the integration. So the projects we want to do are where all three of those meet and that's really sustainable development."
Rural Action thinks they've found integration in nearby Chesterhill, Ohio, where they organize a twice-weekly produce auction. People come from all around to buy a trunk-load of cabbage, some flowers for their yard, or a pint of strawberries.
The produce auction is an agricultural enterprise deeply rooted in community, where hundreds of different kinds of growers and buyers attend, and it's become a true community event. People like to attend the auction because it's a place to find high-quality produce in bulk at a good price and feel a strong sense of community. Farmers sell at the auction because they earn good prices for the produce as buyers’ bids drive up prices. It's a growing venture in this region known for its education around local foods, community gardening, and how to preserve food — all parts of local food security.
These are examples of the mission of Rural Action. Their work has been to engage people in this region to talk about their assets and the future that they want.
To learn more about Rural Action, please visit www.ruralaction.org.