Nearly 650 AmeriCorps members come to the Mountain State each year to complete a term of service in West Virginia communities. Of these, approximately two dozen serve annually right here in the Friendly City through organizations such as Grow Ohio Valley (Grow OV) and Wheeling Heritage.
They come from all regions and walks of life; some are newcomers to the valley while others are locals who left and are able to return home through an AmeriCorps program. While many of these volunteers come and go, some stay. Drawn to Wheeling’s rebirth, they have decided to continue to be a part of it, to continue to build up our — and now their — community.
In one way or another, four AmeriCorps alumni meet this description: Lorenzo Arce, Sarah Morgan, Eleanor Marshall and Kellie White all served as AmeriCorps volunteers in Wheeling and have since stayed in the city following their year of service. Arce, Marshall and Morgan each served with Grow Ohio Valley while White worked with the West Virginia Association of Museums. Each came to Wheeling for a different reason and has decided to stay because of a different cause, but their stories share certain commonalities that help narrate the experience of the AmeriCorps volunteers who live, work and serve among us.
KELLIE WHITE: OPPORTUNITY WITH A CHANGE OF SCENERY
Originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Kellie White was living outside of Washington, D.C., when she was looking for both educational opportunity and a change of scenery from the big city. Belmont College’s graduate program in historic preservation offered both simultaneously, and she jumped at the chance.
“I told my fiancée, I’m moving to West Virginia, I hope that’s OK,” said White. “And he said yeah, let’s do it!”
Arriving in the valley in 2016, White and her then-fiancée Haseeb found their niches: professionally, educationally and socially. Despite attending classes and working full time, she felt a desire to serve her new home. In 2018, White signed up as a part-time AmeriCorps volunteer with the West Virginia Association of Museums, which she was able to do remotely from Wheeling.
“It was a tough year, but the experience was entirely worth it,” White said. “West Virginia has such great history and culture, I really enjoyed supporting the institutions that celebrate those.”
While White worked from her computer to organize workshops and support the Mountain State’s cultural institutions, the other three were just a few blocks away at Grow Ohio Valley in East Wheeling.
ELEANOR MARSHALL: FRIENDLY FARM TO FRIENDLY CITY
Eleanor Marshall grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, in the heart of America’s agricultural heartland. Despite being surrounded by crop fields, it wasn’t until high school that Marshall started to think about the landscape around her and the food systems it sustained.
“If you grow up in West Virginia, your landscape is mountains; if you grow up in Iowa, your landscape is cornfields and soybean fields,” said Marshall. “It was just a backdrop; in high school I started to become aware of that as something that was created and had implications.”
While still living in Iowa, Marshall had her first experience working in agriculture on a small organic farm just outside of Iowa City called Friendly Farm. The whole operation only farmed on five to six acres, growing diversified vegetables for local farmers’ markets. Marshall relished connecting the relationship between the land and food, which she didn’t forget after heading to the East Coast to attend Yale University and later work in New York City, perhaps the least rural stretch of land in America.
“I was working at the Public Defender’s office in New York City; it was meaningful work, but I didn’t feel that it was the right fit for me,” Marshall said. “I remember sitting with my friend Jack and saying, ‘man, I just want to farm.’”
Marshall left New York to work on a diversified produce farm in Georgia that mostly sold to farmers’ markets in Atlanta. She enjoyed her work but found herself increasingly thinking about food systems and local food as a movement. Most of the market customers were upper-middle-class Atlantans who could already afford healthy food, Marshall wanted to apply her analytical skills to help those less fortunate have access to quality local food. Enter Grow Ohio Valley.
“I found this opportunity through AmeriCorps and was interested in what they [Grow OV] were doing,” Marshall said. “I liked that they had so many balls in the air; they had some production but also all sorts of experiments to get food to people.”
One such project was the Public Market, which Marshall helped start planning for as an AmeriCorps volunteer. After her year of service, she was promoted to Director of Special Projects overseeing the launch of the market.
LORENZO ARCE: BRAKES TO BAGUETTES
Considering Grow OV’s share of the valley’s AmeriCorps opportunities, some Americorps alumni who stay in the area continue to work in Wheeling’s emerging food scene. Included in that category is Lorenzo Arce, who currently works at Good Mansion Wines in East Wheeling.
Originally from Michigan, Arce followed a journey that took him from a mechanical engineer working on high-end automobile brakes to a baker of top-tier baguettes.
After attending college at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, Arce took a job at Brembo, a manufacturer of brakes for high-performance vehicles including Formula 1 racecars. While at Brembo, he befriended coworkers who also ran a maple syrup farm. He soon found himself working at the maple syrup farm, which provided him with a connection to nature that the factory floor could not satisfy. In contrast to the absolute science of engineering, the reliance on nature in farming appealed to Arce. Working on the maple syrup farm introduced him to the world of agriculture, and eventually drew him away from his job at Brembo into a new — but invigorating — career.
“Working at the maple syrup farm made me realize how connected we are with nature and how dependent we are on it,” said Arce. “Thinking about the people who don’t have that connection made me want to farm even more, to explore it and see if it’s something I can do to make a living and be happy.”
Arce left Michigan to work as a farmhand at Hiyu, an organic farm-to-table vineyard in Hood River, Oregon. He oversaw the livestock on the farm, which included a milk cow (named Stella), two meat cows, 40 chickens, seven pigs and five goats. While he enjoyed his time in Oregon, Arce eventually wanted to do something more service-oriented.
“I was looking at service year opportunities across the country, and came across Grow Ohio Valley through AmeriCorps,” Arce said. “I got in touch with them directly and, within a few months, I drove my little Suzuki across the country to Wheeling.”
While serving with AmeriCorps at Grow OV, Arce also began working at Good Mansion Wines. Between the two roles, he was often putting in 12- to 14-hour days of labor-intensive work, but he enjoyed being at both ends of the food production spectrum. When his AmeriCorps term ended, Arce was offered a full-time job as a baker and apprentice pastry chef at Good Mansion. He found an apartment on 14th Street (just across from the shop) and settled into East Wheeling.
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SARAH MORGAN: HOMETOWN ADVENTURE
Though many AmeriCorps members come from outside of the region, the program enabled Sarah Morgan to come home. A native of McMechen, Morgan left the valley to attend college at Lipscomb University in Nashville, staying in the Music City after graduation.
Incidentally, the AmeriCorps position — and staying in the Wheeling area — were somewhat serendipitous.
“I came home in the summer of 2017 to visit my family before hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and I realized I wanted to stay around and see my family for a while longer,” Morgan said. “I was wondering what I was going to do for a year, and during a nature walk, the word farming came to mind. I was very prayerful on how to spend my time, and that idea of farming was a big delight to me.”
Like many of Grow Ohio Valley’s AmeriCorps volunteers, Morgan did not have an extensive background in farming, but she enjoyed connecting with nature and feeling closer to God. After her year of service, she was able to stay with Grow Ohio Valley as the farm manager, a role that includes educational programming for local elementary school students.
As both young people and recent transplants, these four Americorps alums each have a unique perspective of our valley. Whether it be Wheeling’s food scene or the relationship between our geography and built environment, their observations help illustrate our special attributes that many lifelong locals take for granted.
For White, who was living in the Washington, D.C., area before moving to Wheeling, one of her first impressions of the valley was how verdantly vibrant it is.
“When we moved here, the first thing we noticed were the trees,” White said. “It sounds silly, but when you’re used to living on a traffic circle where there are maybe five trees, you really notice when everything is green for the majority of the year.”
Vegetation was hardly the only major difference between Wheeling and Washington. White cited city size, safety and affordability as major draws for Wheeling. Compared to a major metropolitan area — particularly one as expensive as D.C. — traveling and even just going out to the movie theater is much more feasible in the Ohio Valley.
Though White and her husband initially came to Wheeling for professional and educational opportunity, it was the communities they clicked into that have kept them in the Friendly City.
“I got plugged into Wheeling Young Preservationists (WYP) really early and was able to find people in my age group who had similar interests,” White said. “Making friends as an adult is hard, especially in a new city. WYP got me connected with a lot of great people, most of my friend group has some connection to WYP, either tangentially or directly.”
Morgan cited community around Grow Ohio Valley as a driving force in retaining former AmeriCorps members in Wheeling.
“We all get along together so well,” Morgan said. “It’s very friendly and family-oriented. I’ve seen other organizations treat AmeriCorps members as a separate class of volunteers, Grow OV welcomed us in as if we were employees.”
As a valley native, Morgan sees Wheeling — and its transformation — with a different lens. Like many young people from the region, she left upon graduation from high school in search of new possibilities in larger cities. While she initially found what she was looking for in Nashville, she has come to find that Wheeling now offers many of those cultural and social amenities.
“I never really saw Wheeling as a place that had art; I was still going off of my perceptions of the area from when I was growing up,” Morgan said. “When I came back here, there was something I felt that I could be a part of, a way for me to contribute while still be rewarded in the sense of financial stability.”
Hardly unique as a returned wayward son or daughter of the valley, Morgan is part of a movement of young people who are returning to Wheeling and the surrounding communities, bringing with them experiences and ideas that they want to replicate back home.
“Now we’re equipped, and we’re coming back with these ideas, and we have the foundations that we can build off of,” Morgan said. “It’s really neat to come back and see people also returning with that experience. It’s been a gift to come back to Wheeling.”
In addition to the other AmeriCorps members and Grow OV staff, Arce became connected with a community of foodies in Wheeling. Living at Sandscrest during his AmeriCorps service year, Lorenzo befriended the proprietors of Hangover Barbecue on GC&P Road.
“When they opened up, I grabbed some pastries and baguettes to welcome them to the neighborhood,” Arce said. “They returned the favor with meat, and we built a great friendship around exchanging food and hanging out.”
When Arce first arrived in Wheeling, the city reminded him of Flint, Michigan, because of the post-industrial decline coupled with the contrasting wealth of magnificent buildings. As he became more familiar with Wheeling, however, a deeper comparison became evident.
“I love Flint, it’s a great city with so much community; there’s a lot of struggle there, but it builds that community, Arce said. “I think Wheeling shares that tight-community feel.”
Similarly to the other three, for Eleanor part of the allure of Wheeling is the likeminded community she has clicked in with, specifically through Grow Ohio Valley.
“Grow Ohio Valley kind of integrates with a cool community in Wheeling,” Marshall said. “If Grow Ohio Valley is your gateway to Wheeling, your first encounter is with people who live in a strong community together, based around quality local food.”
Of course, she recognizes that there is a big community outside of the Grow Ohio Valley staff, AmeriCorps volunteers and supporters. With a key role in the development of downtown through the Public Market, Marshall continues to notice the changes and possibilities of Wheeling.
“Wheeling is one of the few places I’ve been that probably will be pretty different in five years,” Marshall said. “A lot of the places I’ve lived in know what they are, they’re in a happy stasis. Wheeling feels like the kind of place that’s making decisions about itself and where it’s going, and that is interesting to experience.”
White echoed a similar sentiment.
“I think Wheeling is a very diverse place and very unique place: we have this city feel with the downtown and tall buildings, but also have a small-town mentality in the sense of people being very plugged into what’s happening,” White said. “A lot is going to change in three years, and it’s on a good track.”
• Nick Musgrave is a self-described history geek living in Wheeling, West Virginia. He is a graduate of Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, where he earned his bachelor’s degrees in history and political science. When not writing for Weelunk or uncovering cool stories about the past, he can often be found reading in his hammock or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee.