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‘It was a miracle to find him alive’
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Romney woman’s search and rescue expertise crucial in discovery

LOST RIVER – A pair of brown Merrell hiking boots, a backpack, a headlamp, 2 bottles of water and a fiberglass sharp tip pole.

That’s the search-and-rescue attire of Romney’s Sharice Mays. The Hampshire County native was part of a small group that found Lost River hiker Matt Wilson alive earlier this month after he was lost for over 5 days.

Mays’s keen search and rescue tactics were essential in discovering the missing trekker.

“You are our hero,” praised Matt Wilson’s grandmother Linda Johnston although Mays won’t give herself that label.

Matt goes missing

On July 6, a Tuesday, Wilson, a graduate of Moorefield High School went missing.

Three days later, Matt’s mother Kristy See officially reported her 21-year-old son as missing.

In addition, See posted a plea on Facebook asking volunteers to help find her son. Kristy’s friend and former colleague Sharice Mays saw the posting and didn’t hesitate to respond.

Immediately following work on Friday, Mays fired up her blue hybrid hatchback and headed toward Lost River State Park with search gear in tow.

Mays had an inexactstarting point to begin her quest as Wilson’s truck was found on Howards Lick earlier that day. Unfortunately, the discovery of the truck failed to provide any clues to the whereabouts of the missing Moorefield native.

The search on Friday ended empty handed, but there was optimism heading into Saturday.

“After 24 hours, I’m sure the cavalry will show up,” assumed Mays.

The Saturday search

See had filed the missing persons report around noon on Friday. The group of rescuers believed that 24 hours needed to pass before for local authorities would dispatch a search-and-rescue team.

Volunteers reconvened on Saturday morning along Lost River State Park Road to renew their hunt. Hour after hour ticked by without sign of Matt or the local authorities.

Without the help of law enforcement, the burden of the search was now on the shoulders of family and friends, consisting of green volunteers.

“You had people that weren’t hikers at all, that don’t know search and rescue which can make things that much worse,” explained Mays.

Luckily for the search party, Mays had search-and-rescue experience.

Mays’s background

Mays’s proficiency in search-and-rescue tactics proved invaluable to the group, a product of her hiking passion as a youth and her college days in Morgantown.

The 37-year-old Hampshire High graduate has loved hiking since the days of growing up on a farm in Purgitsville, unearthing unique rocks to collect and enjoy.

At WVU, Mays majored in psychology. During her down time, she was trained on proper search-and-rescue techniques as a 2-year member of the Wilderness Search and Rescue Squad.

Typically, hikes are a way for Mays to relax. She has explored iconic landscapes including Yellowstone, Scotland and Iceland. 

The scenic landscape near Lost River State Park is striking, but combing through ferns, sticks, leaves and overgrowth for clues is anything but relaxing.

Even though Lost River is in the same county as Mays’s employer, surprisingly, the park is not one of Mays’s go-to hiking spots. The lack of familiarity didn’t alter her sense of direction on how she should pursue this rescue.

“I am familiar with how to navigate in the woods, which is super important,” Mays noted. “I don’t have a problem going down a bank or to go off trail.”

Although generous volunteers have good intentions of helping search-and-rescue efforts, Mays noted there are some challenges using inexperienced teams.

“They are hesitant to go off trail,” she mentioned. “If the missing person was on the trail or on the road, we would have already found them.”

With the odds stacked against this unproven search party, the rugged mountainside terrain combined with blazing summer heat multiplied the complications of this operation.

Mays called the biggest concerns dehydration and exhaustion.

As the sun started to lower in the west on Saturday evening, the situation looked grim.

Mays said she feared the worse.

“I hate to admit this, but it was so incredibly hot, that I was searching more for a smell than a person,” Mays said with a wince.

The Saturday search ended without any answers, but the group of good Samaritans refused to quit.

“Jesus, please help us,” prayed Kristy See, hoping to find her son alive.

Sunday miracle

The hodgepodge group of volunteers including a bloodhound congregated on Sunday morning to comb the woods for any sign of Matt.

With cooler temperatures, the search on Sunday was a bit easier, however, mental fatigue and physical exhaustion loomed large over the party.

Small groups rummaged through tree limbs, shallow creek beds and large bushes up and down Lost River State Park Road.

As morning turned to afternoon, a group of 10 stumbled into an area with signs of human life.

At 2:25 p.m. the group spotted Matt alive, albeit delirious and disheveled.

“They formed a line from top to bottom,” See said about how the group brought Matt up the mountain and to safety.

“God’s saving grace, his will to survive and a family never willing to give up is what brought him out,” she said.

Mays was also shocked that Matt was found alive after being missing for 5 days.

“It was a miracle to find him,” Mays said. “It had been so many days and with temperatures over 90-degrees, it was just amazing.”

When the search party contacted 911, the intense mixture of disbelief and overwhelming joy filled the air as an ambulance arrived and rushed Matt to the hospital.

“He was severely dehydrated with mostly surface wounds, scratches and bites,” See confirmed. “However, his feet took the brunt of it and we are nursing them back to health. Everything considered, he is doing amazing.”

Flaws in the system

Although Mays was not in the group that spotted Matt on Sunday, she played a vital role in finding him.

 “She just showed up and started looking with us,” See said. “She is very knowledgeable in efforts of searching and she did so out of the kindness of her heart.”

Mays said simply, “We are lucky that this search didn’t become a circus — people getting hurt, snake bit, lost and everything else.”

Mays alluded to the weaknesses of a search party with friends and family involved.

She pointed out that loved ones are mentally unprepared to discover a dead body, and every search has a chance of that happening.

“That’s not the way it’s ever supposed to be,” she asserted. “I know it was joy and emotion, but it could’ve been awful to watch if it went the other way.”

She pointed out there is 1 incredibly helpful tool that should have been used early in the search process: a drone.

“From what I understand, authorities in Hardy County have a drone,” said Mays. “I can’t fathom why they didn’t put a drone up in the air.”

As for right now, the overwhelming joy of finding Matt after 5 days still seems surreal.

“We would have stormed the gates of hell to bring him back,” Kristy See asserted.

Smiling faces pack fair’s opening night
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The return of the fair, after being canceled in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic, brought a big opening-night crowd. The 698 people who came through the turnstiles easily surpassed the 451 of 2019 and the 650 of 2018.

“Our attendance was up over 200 from 2019,” noted Fair Board Chairman Duane “Punkin” Oates.

Savannah Kangas grinned from ear to ear as she was crowned Miss Hampshire County Fair, while Hope Bond accepted the title of Miss Mountain Laurel (as well as the people’s choice award).

 “All of this has kind of come full circle for me because I held the title of Miss Mountain Laurel’s Outstanding Teen back in 2016, and then 5 years later to the exact day I was crowned Miss Hampshire County Fair,” Kangas explained. “It’s kind of crazy how timing works out sometimes.”

Kangas said she grew up in the Miss America Organization and started competing around age 12, so it’s been an emotional experience for her.

Since there were only 2 queen candidates, pageant organizer Brenda Pyles said there was a unique opportunity for both Kangas and Bond: they each won a title.

Four teen candidates hoped to win a crown as well.

Lexi Whetzel beamed, danced and strutted her way to the title of Miss Hampshire County Fair Outstanding Teen, and Madison Deshong took both Miss Congeniality and Miss Mountain Laurel Outstanding Teen.

Also present on the stage for the pageant was Katelyn Turner, 2012’s Miss Hampshire County Fair, who acted as the master of ceremonies.

Miss West Virginia, Jaelyn Wratchford, also graced the stage and provided encouragement and guidance to the candidates.

The Outstanding Teen and Miss Hampshire County Fair from 2019, sisters Teagan and Monica Werner, gave emotional farewells as their reigns came to an end Monday night.

There were smiles, tears and hugs as the sisters thanked their friends, family and each other for the 2 years of inspiration and encouragement during their reigns.

As with the pageant, the number of people participating in the livestock barn or for exhibit ribbons is down from 2019. Not quite 100 youth are showing livestock instead of the usual 140 to 150.

Organizers said exhibits are down in the 4-H hall, CEOS building and crops building as well.

But good weather — it was hot and dry Monday — and pent-up demand for social interactions brought people to the fairgrounds.

Oates said business was steady at both the big and little kitchens.

He paid tribute to a couple of additions.

Nellie’s Flower Farm of Augusta provided flowers for the tables in the dining hall, drawing many comments, Oates said.

“It made our dining hall stand out,” he said.

And a new ice cream vendor from Elkins gave Oates a good first impression of the 64th annual Hampshire County Fair. o

$10.8M set for school relief
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ROMNEY — Hampshire County Schools now have a plan to spend nearly $11 million over 3 years to right the problems Covid-19 have brought to education here.

The $10.83 million comes from the American Recovery Plan. Schools have until the end of 2024 to spend the funds.

The plan is briefly outlined in 2 pages on the Hampshire County Schools website. The public has until next Wednesday, Aug. 4, to comment on it before it is finally adopted.

Hampshire County is proposing to spend $2.74 million to address learning loss in ways from online math and reading programs for middle schoolers to credit recovery at HHS.

The summer academy, which included over 400 students in its initial outing this year, will continue.

“I fully expect that to grow,” Superintendent Jeff Pancione told the board at a meeting last week.

Another $115,000 is targeted for summer enrichment.

After-school programs will get $308,662 pumped into them over the next 3 years. The 5th block at Hampshire High will continue. The funds will also pay for after-school tutoring, instructional materials and the transportation needed to get students home later.

The biggest portion of the $10.83 million is $7.76 million in funding that’s at the discretion of the county to meet the goals of the program, labeled the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund.

Hampshire is planning to use those funds to pay for hardware and software; building improvements at HHS, both middle schools and Capon Bridge Elementary; instructional materials; outdoor classrooms and cleaning supplies. o

‘At its heart, this is a community project’
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The Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources united to announce that $1.3 million would be awarded to 32 projects as a part of the G3 partnership: Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns.

The G3 grant program was created to support green, or eco-friendly, street projects to reduce stormwater runoff, improve green spaces in more urban areas and maintain the health of water sources.

The Capon Bridge Revitalization Group applied for one of these G3 grants, and at the end of June, the Capon School Street project became one of the 32 projects in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to win a little money.

Well, a lot of money: $78,500 to be exact.

“I think the whole CBRG was pretty excited to find out that an award that size is coming back to the community,” said Logan Mantz with the revitalization group. “While we know this award will just cover the 1st phase of the project, it’s still really exciting to see a project this size start to come to life.”

Capon School Street is the backbone of Capon Bridge, serving as the entrance to the elementary and middle schools, a town park, the sheriff’s office, churches and more.

Diana Esher, the EPA Mid-Atlantic Region Acting Regional Administrator, said that one of the top priorities for the project is water infrastructure.

“The G3 program is showing how we can reduce pollution to local waters and the Chesapeake Bay in affordable, sustainable ways,” Esher said. “These 32 projects awarded this year are vital to protecting our air, water, land and public health.”

She added that it’s “exciting” to see so many organizations, like the Capon Bridge Revitalization group, committed to improving the environment.

The funds from this grant are earmarked for green updates to the Capon School Street area, including incorporating more environmentally-friendly infrastructure and stormwater management (such as bioswales, which Mantz described as, “a design feature that filters water before flowing to the river, but will look like a section of green space”).

Mantz added that work will be done on the drain line and the median on School Street, as well as an underground conduit put in place so power and telecommunication lines can be installed later.

In 2012, the City of Romney was granted $25,000 for a “green streets improvement” project from the G3 program, but an organization hasn’t been awarded any G3 grants since then.

Until now.

“We are encouraged to see the number of organizations looking to add a green element to their infrastructure projects grows each year,” said Dr. Jana Davis, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust. “The 32 grantees that were recognized are taking actions that enrich not only natural resources but also their own local communities.”

Mantz pointed out that while the Capon School Street project is only in its beginning phases, he can see the longer lasting effects on the community.

“At its heart, this is a community project,” he said. “It’s grown into a countywide collaborative effort…it’s certainly cool to see that our little Hampshire County communities can work on big projects if we work together.”