From navigating rivers to creating access to adventure for all
Adventure Recreation Management Alumni Spotlight: Melanie Seiler
Melanie Seiler was raised in Fayetteville, West Virginia – the heart of what is now the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve. Growing up around abundant
outdoor recreation opportunities, Seiler worked for her family business, Songer
Whitewater. She worked as a river manager and began river guiding in 1997 when
she was 18, among other duties. When Songer merged with Adventures on the Gorge
in 2011, she continued to work in the industry and still guides part-time.
When the opportunity came to join Active Southern West Virginia (Active SWV),
she combined her love of the outdoors, industry experience and degree in Adventure
Recreation Management from WVU Tech to increase the quality of life for local
residents through physical activity.
“Growing up in the outdoor industry gave me the impression that everyone had an opportunity to jump in a raft and paddle through whitewater or meet up with friends on bike trails and climbing routes,” she remarks.
“What drives me is later realizing the lack of access and interest in outdoor recreation by peers and my community. I want to express and share opportunities for experiencing the benefits of adopting a lifestyle of physical activity. Being active on a regular basis can have lasting health benefits and Active SWV makes it fun by setting up volunteers to lead aerobics classes, hikes and walks, running groups, water aerobics, paddle boarding, outdoor fitness stations workouts, yoga, boot camp classes, disc golf, and much more.”
Since 2015, Seiler has been at the helm of Active SWV as the founding executive director. Active SWV is a non-profit with the mission of creating opportunities for free physical activity to improve the health of West Virginia’s workforce and bring opportunities to populations in rural areas facing significant social and economic barriers. Programs are led by Community Captains, who are trained volunteers from the communities they serve. Active SWV serves Fayette, Nicholas, Summers, Boone, Raleigh and Kanawha counties.
Seiler says it’s a lot of administrative work, keeping up with funding requests and reporting, but strives to give her team all the tools they need to do their job well.
When not doing administrative tasks, she speaks to groups about the work Active SWV does and at free community events, which she loves. She also enjoys river surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, telemark skiing, trout fishing and scooter riding.
In 2000, Seiler received her associate's degree in Adventure Sports from Garrett College in Maryland. A professor from that program, Steve Stork, came to the Beckley area to begin building coursework for what became the Adventure Recreation Management major at WVU Tech.
“He asked me questions about the area and the tourism industry. I became interested in furthering my education and picking up where I left off when I dove full-time into the family business,” Seiler says.
Seiler graduated in 2021 from WVU Tech with her bachelor's degree in Adventure Recreation Management.
“I would recommend it to anyone wanting to advance their career in recreation – defined as outdoor experiences for any audience – from seasonal employment to year-round employment. It’s also a great program for someone that wants to run their own business in recreation by learning skills to manage services from top to bottom,” she says.
Seiler shared that she gained knowledge and skills to facilitate programs with our employees and volunteers. The concepts she learned has helped her strengthen the continuity of the organization’s services.
“Legal and ethical issues was an impactful course I took in the program, and at a critical time with the last year of social issues. I feel more confident in holding employees to high standards and have a better understanding of employment laws,” Seiler said of the classes she took at WVU Tech.
“I’m applying what I’ve learned to my work, including risk management, legal and ethical issues, and uncovering bias and stigmas in our culture that contribute to health inequities. This helps provide better programming to our community, like an indoor aerobics class, organized sports or outdoor recreation,” she notes.
With Active Southern West Virginia, while trying to promote hikes, Seiler would hear comments from the community like “We don’t hike, that’s what the tourists do.” She would then suggest a walk in the woods and would receive the reply, “We used to walk in the woods all the time." She’s found that the community is more accepting of that conversation.
“That’s how different these terms can be. Hiking has this perception that they have to be geared-up or that it’s expensive and vigorous,” Seiler says.
“There’s a perception you have to participate in gear-based outdoor recreation, like skiing and snow sports, for instance. Or there's an idea it's for a higher class, and people of diversity aren't often included in these programs. That simply is not the case. We have a lot of photos from our programs of people in jeans and tennis shoes riding bikes, or a man in camo overalls doing tai chi, for example,” she says.
What Seiler found rewarding in her twenties was the opportunity to play outdoors and to find others with similar interests. “What I value now is that I can take my career in any direction and facilitate experiential education programs across sectors and to a variety of individuals,” Seiler says.
Seiler also notes there's some overlap between her job now and her connection to WVU Tech. WVU Tech students are leading outdoor activities as Active SWV Community Captains and volunteers, using what they learned to provide training and solidify their skillset. WVU Tech is also a venue partner offering free space for Community Captain programs on campus. In the future, Seiler says students can continue to be certified Active SWV Community Captains to help deliver free activities to residents and wants to work toward sharing certification courses with students and volunteers.
“It’s been a vision for a few years to offer students community service, internships and fieldwork with Active Southern West Virginia to give back to the community. They learn public leadership, risk management, group dynamics, communication and promotion,” she says. “Plus, there are free opportunities for local families to have access to activities since these students are offering more hikes and programming.”
“We’re working on a five-year plan and how Active SWV can expand to reach more people and places. We’re focused on increasing the standard of volunteer management in West Virginia, expanding the reach of our programs to more rural communities and expanding support for our organization with partners and funders. I look forward to growing the staff and creating effective systems to maximize our impact,” Seiler says.
Anyone can volunteer or participate at Active SWV. For more information, visit activeswv.org. For more information about the Adventure Recreation Management degree at WVU Tech, visit admissions.wvutech.edu.