Connecting with Clay Communities

Ami Cook, a Family and Community Development agent for West Virginia University Extension Services, has spent more than a decade working in and around Clay County. She knows the terrain and the people, and she knows the challenges rural communities have encountered with food access and physical activity opportunities. 

So, when a colleague reached out inquiring about her interest in Be Wild. Be Wonderful. Be Healthy, a collaboration between WVU Extension and the CDC that promotes access to healthy food and safe, convenient places for physical activity, she jumped at the opportunity. Since then, Cook and the rest of our team at Be Healthy have helped connect Clay and McDowell Counties with support where it’s most needed. 

Since 2019, more than 30 projects have been funded through the CDC’s High Obesity Program (HOP). The goal of these projects is to help improve health and wellness by providing opportunities for healthy food and physical activity in communities with high obesity rates. 

In Clay County, food security is a serious concern. For years, the region has made national headlines as its single grocery store faded in and out of business over the last decade. At times, Cook said, the only food access options Clay residents had were dollar stores and gas stations. 

“It’s eye-opening when you hear people tell stories about how hard it is to come by food,” Cook said.

Through the efforts of Clay County residents and Be Healthy’s mini-contracts, food pantries like the Risen Lord Catholic Church’s have been able to serve — and reach — more West Virginians. 

“Food access is a huge issue here, and we have several food pantries who are already doing tremendous work,” Ami said. “We’ve just been able to boost what they were doing together. It’s great to see the community come together and tackle that problem in partnership.”

In the future, Cook hopes to see more food access efforts in outlying communities that may struggle with transportation to and from pantries. 

In Clay County, mountains make up much of the terrain, leaving few open spaces for public recreation. Now, Be Healthy projects like the walking trail at Lizemore Elementary School are being used by the whole community, Cook said. 

“We had a group of people, when we started this grant process, who came to us saying, ‘We’ve been trying for years to get some sort of walking trail in the area. Can you help us?’ And that’s how that partnership developed,” Cook said. “We get a lot of feedback from community members there that the thing they have to do for physical activity is go to that walking trail.”  

Over the last three years, several spaces have become designated physical activity spaces in Clay County. From hiking and walking trails to disc golf courses, all have been utilized by the communities, Cook said.

“The projects we’ve done have given people so much more opportunity for healthy lifestyles,” Cook said. “There are all sorts of different ways for people to get active.”

According to Cook, the community involvement in these projects has been overwhelmingly positive. When there are opportunities to join in on these initiatives, folks are quick to get involved. Partaking in these projects has been an empowering experience for many, she said. Not only is community involvement appreciated in these projects, it’s encouraged. After all — our fellow West Virginians know their community’s needs better than anyone. 

“They’re really excited, which is the best part of it all,” she said. “Seeing people who are so excited to get involved and have the opportunity to make their town better — it’s one of my favorite things about Clay.”

That sense of pride is contagious, Cook said, and it’s spread widely with the addition of each new community project. She hopes to see it continue long into the future.

This spring, Be Healthy is funding more projects that support even more opportunities for healthy foods and physical activity. Follow us on social media for project updates and more! 

In Clay County, Be Healthy has supported a variety of projects, from walking trails to food pantries. Learn more about three of our Year Three projects in Clay County here: