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Belling, Morgantown North Rotary build benches on rail-trail

By Rebecca L. Hunn

Why has a professor emeritus of oral pathology built 36 benches, and why is the owner of a local book publishing company out selling them?
It’s not at all what they set out to do but, as with other things in life, there are twists and turns you just don’t see coming.
It all started in 2015 when retired WVU School of Dentistry professor, Gordon Keyes, was riding his bike on the rail-trail. He noticed several areas with litter issues so, on behalf of his Rotary club, Morgantown North, he paid a visit to Ella Belling, executive director of the Mon River Trails Conservancy. The idea was for Morgantown North volunteers to do a clean-up on designated portions of the trail. But during the meeting, Belling mentioned they could really use more benches on the trail.
Keyes response was, “I don’t know anything about building benches.”
Belling sent him pictures of existing benches, so he decided to take a closer look at one of them.
“I got on my bike and I went and sketched it out, took the measurements, and that was the prototype for the very first bench that we installed.”
That bench sits just north of the Van Voorhis kayak launch.
The bench project appealed to Morgantown North Rotarians. The prospect of giving people more places to stop and rest along the trail seemed like a good community service.
And, while Keyes did the construction, other members came forward to help with installation. That starts with the ordeal of getting a very heavy bench, along with tools and concrete mix, to the installation site, often in places that aren’t easily accessible. And then, as Keyes pointed out, “All of the benches are concreted in. You have to dig two holes about two feet deep, put the bench in place, stabilize it, level it and pour the concrete in.”
Belling said, “It’s a significant amenity for the trail because you want people to be able to hike a longer distance and enjoy the river, the views, the wildflowers. Having a Rotary partner has been very appreciated.”
While the labor is free, there are still the bench components and the concrete to purchase. To date Morgantown North Rotary has installed 17 benches on the Mon River Trail and the Decker’s Creek Trail. A $1,000 grant from Rotary District 7530 helped with the cost of materials.
From there, Morgantown North set its sights on the Arboretum. Another grant was awarded, and there are now 11 benches along the trails in the Arboretum.
Rotary clubs, in fact service clubs of all kinds, do projects, big and small, all around the world. This is a Morgantown North project, but the three other Rotary clubs in Morgantown and the other 51 clubs in the District, all have projects that benefit their communities.
And they also donate money to many organizations and causes. But to give money, they must raise money. And, for Morgantown North, that’s where the owner of Populore Publishing came in.
Rae Jean Sielen is a long-time Morgantown North member. But she’s also active in other groups. She was in a meeting of the Senior Health Advisory group one day when someone said seniors needed benches at strategic places where, for example, they wait on a bus. From that comment, and some positive input from the public on the trail and Arboretum benches, Sielen started thinking.
Morgantown North was facing a reduction in income from one of its long-time fundraisers. The group needed something to supplement it. Her thoughts turned to the work she does, much of which involves personal and family history projects. Some of her clients are motivated to leave a legacy; for others, it’s to honor an individual or ancestors.
Would benches with a plaque make a great and lasting tribute? And she thought about one of the tenets of Rotary’s Four Way Test, which is “Will it build goodwill and better
And then, there was the culture of the club.
“Our club, many of us, have had a feeling that if we’re going to sell something, we want it to be something useful, well-made, something we can feel proud of,” Sielen said. “And our product was already out there. People had been noticing the benches. We had a track record.”
So, late in 2018 it was decided to give benches as a fundraiser a try. It turned out to be a solid decision. Morgantown North Rotarians have purchased them, as well as Rotarians from other clubs. Sielen, and other Morgantown North members, talk them up wherever they go, often getting an order on the spot.
“The first two times I talked about it publicly,” Sielen said, “I sold benches. I left one meeting with a check for the full amount.”
One sponsored bench has already been placed in Mason-Dixon Park, and there’s room for more. And Morgantown North is planning to sell benches to be placed in Star City’s newly refurbished Riverfront Park.
They’ve been installed in other settings as well. There’s one at Sundale Rehabilitation and Long-Term Care, and another at Suncrest Elementary School.
That is a special bench — a Buddy Bench. It was purchased by Morgantown Rotary member Jeff Stewart, his wife, Sondra, and their son, Troy, in honor of Jeff and Sondra’s son, Brandon Stewart, who died due to an aortic aneurysm in July 2019. Brandon attended Suncrest Elementary, and the family thought the bench would be a fitting way to honor his life.
Before working with the Stewarts, Morgantown North Rotary was unaware of the Buddy Bench concept. But it’s one that many teachers and principals know and understand. They see the kids every day who tend to be alone at recess, at a loss for a friend. The idea behind a Buddy Bench is simple. If a child is sitting on the bench, they’d like someone to pal around with. And if a child sees someone sitting on the bench, they should invite them to join in.
Jeff Stewart talked about on how friendly and outgoing his son was, and that he was the kind who would make sure to be a buddy to any kid on a Buddy Bench.