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Entrepreneurship student leads team to rewrite narrative about Appalachian region

Wednesday, November 7 2018 11:45am

Only in Appalachia tells the stories of everyday people, individuals with a great social impact, and young adults.

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By Meghan Morris


Even young people can make a difference in their community.

A College of Business student at Ohio University and several of his peers at other universities are determined to change the perception of Appalachia through social media. They created Only in Appalachia (OIA), which tells stories of Appalachian people who live in the region and those who still support it from afar.

“We’ve grown up in this realm that the outside world believes is an ambitionless place,” said Matt Benson, creator of OIA and a junior studying entrepreneurship at Ohio University. “I’ve always had this itch to create something that shows that there are some amazing people here.”

This isn’t the first startup for Benson, who is also an honors student in the College of Business, a Cutler Scholar, and a Presidential Ambassador. He said studying at OHIO inspired him to create OIA because the university invests in the region.

“I wanted to mimic their action by doing what I could with what I had,” Benson said. “OHIO has taught me that sometimes you just have to 'jump' and learn in the fire.”

Created in July, OIA has rapidly gained a following across social media platforms. It already has more than 7,400 Facebook likes and more than 1,000 Instagram followers. The media agency continues to grow as more people hear about it and want to be involved.

“The response has been incredible,” Cole Massie, an OIA team member and a senior studying public relations and policy studies at Syracuse University, said. “I think people were looking for something like this.”

OIA has three main social media initiatives: a photo gallery, a video series, and story takeovers. Each one focuses on a different group of Appalachian people.

The photo gallery on Instagram (@onlyinappalachia) shows everyday people in the Appalachian region. With the common theme of community, the photos display a vast array of experiences from the region. Rachel, a kindergarten teacher at Southern Local Elementary in Salineville, Ohio, was born and raised in southeastern Ohio. In 12 years of teaching young children in Appalachia, she found out that the smaller school district has plenty of heart despite the lack of resources.

Katie Exline, an OIA team member and a junior studying biology and pre-optometry at Otterbein University, contributes to the Instagram account and said the best part of working for OIA is hearing inspiring stories.

“Growing up, I never felt like anything special. I was just another person who lived in the region,” Exline said. “I think it’s so cool to be a part of something that allows us to tell the stories of everyday people that are doing amazing things.”

The subjects featured by OIA who have a broader reach and more social impact in Appalachia can be found in OIA’s video series, which is shared on most social media platforms. The videos document the subject’s life story, current work, and influence on the region.

Patrick Klein, creator of the iBELIEVE Foundation and associate head women’s basketball coach at Ohio State University, was featured in the first video. He was born and raised in Belpre, Ohio, which inspired him to start an organization that teaches Appalachian youth leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills for free. Klein raised $12,000 for the iBELIEVE Foundation, which started out as a week-long summer camp that helped 36 kids in the first year. Now, iBELIEVE continues the summer camp in addition to year-round programming.

“We want to take stories like that and amplify them on the national scale,” Benson said.

Upcoming interviews for OIA’s video series include OHIO President Nellis and Governor Kasich with more names in the works.

Young adults even have a chance to be involved in OIA’s mission through takeovers of Snapchat and Instagram stories. College students, service workers, young professionals, and others can show their day-to-day activities and connect with OIA followers.

The Only in Appalachia team hopes to receive a 501(c)3 non-profit status in the near future to move the project forward. Benson said that the public has been interested in donating money, which would help the staff travel to more states and dedicate more time to the project.

The team also wants to expand efforts further south to include individuals outside of Ohio and West Virginia in the narrative. The Appalachian region includes parts of 13 states and extends from southern New York to northern Mississippi, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. Over 25 million people currently live there.

“We want to reach even more people and have an opportunity to impact others as we’ve been impacted ourselves,” Exline said. “We truly believe in the Appalachian region. It’s home to us.”