As the world was shutting down in spring 2020, brothers Michael and Kylenn Criste started what Kylenn described as an idea Michael had for a COVID project of sorts, which focused on making positive changes in the state of West Virginia.
The brothers then shaped Michael’s ideas into a nonprofit organization called Flag Spruce Initiative, where they are joined on the board by a few like-minded friends and family members.
“Now two years later, I think we’ve been able to make some meaningful contributions and do some good work,” Kylenn said.
The co-founder said the group wants to help change the stigmas surrounding West Virginia by not only doing hands-on work in local communities, but also to have the important conversations about how to grow and develop the state, as well as encourage and empower people to think outside the box.
The mission of the organization focuses on investing in and advocating for what the brothers refer to as “the three E’s,” – economy, education, and environment – and working toward creating a state that is culturally rich, environmentally sustainable and economically secure.
“We want to find those good parts of West Virginia and really find ways to highlight those and be sought leaders in how we can drive change in local communities – while at the same time recognizing there is a lot of work to be done.” Kylenn said.
One of the group’s ongoing projects is a podcast, “Creeks to Peaks: The Understory.”
The Understory, Kylenn said, is a forestry term for the vegetation that grows on the forest floor under the canopy of the tree tops. Despite not getting much light – it continues to grow and thrive.
With the tagline “The podcast that highlights West Virginians near and far who are doing great things in their respective fields,” Kylenn said the show hopes to reveal some of the understories that make West Virginia grow and thrive.
Season one included discussions with a variety of guests like composer and radio host Matthew Jackfert and award winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon.
Kylenn said the second season just kicked off with a two-part deep dive into the life of the late World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel “Woody” Williams. The next episode will feature a couple native to the state who are making groundbreaking discoveries in climate change.
“There’s a pretty wide swath of people that we’ve had the chance to come in and chat with. And that’s pretty cool in its own right because from my perspective,” he said, “it’s inspiring, you know. It’s not just the run of the mill jobs – it’s thought-provoking.”
Creeks to Peaks not only highlights individuals and promotes a variety of ideas and opportunities, but also will discuss other nonprofits and organizations that are doing good work.
“We want to try and make sure more than anything we are providing a voice and are advocating for different communities, different projects, different organizations who are doing hands-on work, too.”
Kylenn said members of the organization has also gone out and gotten their hands dirty by helping with projects like lavender fields on reclaimed mine land and helping plant a garden at a rehabilitation center.
Advisory board member Eric Lovell said something the Flag Spruce Initiative board members all had in common was they had all traveled and moved outside of the state – and it took leaving West Virginia to be able to look back with a different perspective.
“It’s very personal to us – most of whom live outside the state – but are constantly thinking about our relationship to it and what that means,” Eric said.
“We wanted to think about how we can provide a voice for others who maybe had left West Virginia to kind of create a space for them to share their thoughts or feelings about leaving and what they would essentially say to West Virginia as a state as an object if they could speak to it.”
With that thought in mind, and some inspiration from Jason Headley’s “Dear West Virginia” essay, Eric used his background in geography and geospatial technology and mapping to launch another ongoing project for Flag Spruce Initiative – the Mountain State Migration Survey.
The quick survey asks general questions about your ties to the Mountain State and why you did or didn’t choose to leave.
At the end, there is a spot for you to write your very own “Dear West Virginia.” When surveys are filled out, a location pin is placed on an interactive map on the Flag Spruce website with your Dear West Virginia comment. Pins from those who call West Virginia home can be seen around the world.
As we spoke, Kylenn scrolled across the map and found one that stuck out to him.
“It just says, ‘Dear West Virginia. You’re one of a kind. There are so many times it’s hard to love you. But I will always go to bat for you.’ I think that really kind of perfectly sums up how many of us feel.
“It’s not always easy to be an advocate for West Virginia because you know that there are so many problems,” he said. “But that’s also why it’s so important to make sure you have advocates and allies and that you’re pooling resources together to generate ideas and create communities.”
Flag Spruce not only actively pools resources with other organizations but is also working on pooling monetary resources as well.
Kylenn said they are currently raising funds for their Creeks to Peaks Foundation Scholarship.
Unlike what many traditionally think of as a scholarship, the money is awarded to those who are facing financial barriers starting careers in educational or vocational fields to help pay the costly fees associated with things like certification exams or tools needed for apprenticeships.
Applying for the scholarship is as easy as providing contact information, career or trade field, how much money you need and why you need it.
Economy, education and environment – to help grow and promote a resilient state with resilient people that are and will continue to make impacts on the world – much like the resilience of the organization’s namesake, the Flag Spruce tree.
Even though the board members are out of state a lot they said they still care because “Our families are still there. And our friends are still there. And they’re impacted by this, too. And we grew up seeing the challenges that West Virginians have faced and continue to face, and we want to help make West Virginia – I don’t want to say more marketable, but in some ways that’s kind of what it is right? We want people to want to look at West Virginia, to not just heckle the jokes and the stereotypes.”
“Like there’s a draw – there’s a tangible feeling I feel talking about West Virginia,” Kylenn said. “You know, you crawl across the line and it feels different.”
Kylenn and Eric said their next venture will be taking on the task of cleaning up after Bridge Day next week at the New River Gorge and are looking for volunteers. If you would like to help reach out to them via email email@example.com.
For more information about the group’s work, links to the Creeks to Peaks podcast, Dear West Virginia map, and scholarship application check out flagspruce.org or social media pages. Donations to the organization can be made via the website.