By Hayley M. Cook
WILLIAMSON – Energy Express has officially arrived in Mingo County once again for the summer, with five different sites set up this year, including Matewan Pre K-8, Burch Middle School, Williamson Pre K-8, Kermit Pre K-8, and Gilbert Elementary School.
College students and community residents serving as AmeriCorps volunteers support the program, which will take place Monday through Friday each week through July 25.
Each day, small groups of eight children who are entering first through sixth grades work with AmeriCorps members serving as mentors. Using a place-based curriculum that encourages reading, mentors guide the children through enriching experiences that make reading meaningful in their lives. This involves creating books, reading aloud, writing and performing plays, reading silently, journal writing, reading one-on-one with others, and exploring creative and exciting art activities.
Reading is a driving force behind the success of Energy Express, which has provided learning opportunities and nutrition for local children during the summer months, when they are most at-risk for falling behind on reading levels – a preventable loss known as the “summer slide.”
Children living in rural and low-income communities often fall behind during the summer, starting each school year behind where they were the previous spring. Some of the factors that may lead to this loss are the lack of a nutritious breakfast and lunch, and few structured learning opportunities.
Barbara Taylor Fields, site supervisor for the Matewan location, spoke highly of Energy Express and what it has done for the 40 elementary students and 20 teenage volunteers participating in the program in Matewan.
“I feel that in this area, with so few activities available to these kids, that coming here has been an excellent experience for the children,” Fields said. “It is extremely important that we provide food and a safe environment for them. The burden this takes off of families who are struggling to feed their children is enormous. We have one mother with five children in Energy Express, and she has expressed to us that this takes so much stress off of her.”
Weekly themes of “myself,” “family,” “home place,” “community,” and “ideal world” guide the development of a “print-rich” environment. Related activities encourage children to appreciate themselves, their personal experiences, and their place in the world. According to Fields, an emphasis on self-expression and creativity encourages children to understand themselves in a way she feels video games and texting simply cannot.
Stephanie Fabin, site supervisor for the Williamson location, has a goal of creating 60 back-to-school backpacks – not only for children at her Energy Express location, but for 20 other students from the Williamson area who may be in need of back-to-school supplies.
“To know you’re helping these kids is an amazing thing. Just knowing they have two hot meals every day, and that we’ve helped them, it really makes you feel good. Sometimes it does break your heart to see the situation some kids are in. Knowing you can help them, even just over the summer, really makes you feel good. Honestly, it’s a satisfying job,” Fabin said, noting how pleased she has been with Energy Express.
Leigh Smith, site supervisor for the Kermit location, spoke highly of her AmeriCorps contributors, who she says have worked together as a team and really made the most of their time with participating children.
“The younger kids just have so much fun with our AmeriCorps mentors, and they really look up to them,” said Smith, who cited Caleb Blankenship as an example. Blankenship decorated his classroom in a “Candyland” theme and initiated an ongoing project in which his kids are using milk jugs to build an igloo for the classroom. Smith said this project has been a delightful and creative experience for the children.
The Kermit location has plans for a blood drive and a clothing drive, both of which are community service projects. “We wanted to do something that would better our community,” Smith said. “Picking up trash is always great, but we wanted to do something with a deeper impact.”
Approximately 30 kids and five-10 teenage volunteers have been participating at Kermit, although Smith says more children are certainly welcome to participate at any time.
Gary McComis, site supervisor for the Gilbert location, emphasized the importance of encouraging children to read throughout the summer.
“The main goal of this is to keep these kids on the right track,” said McComis, who noted that their site would be holding a blood drive and a book drive for soldiers.
Approximately 35-40 kids and five teenage volunteers have been participating at Gilbert.
“We have a lot more kids than usual,” McComis said. “There seems to be a need for this right now. They eat up every meal we put out for them.”
Melaine Hall, site supervisor for the Burch location, has integrated science into the Energy Express program, with “fabulous Fridays” that feature interactive science experiments. Last Friday the students created silly putty and learned about chemical reactions, friction and, of course, what happens when you press silly putty against a newspaper.
Hall says Energy Express is needed now more than ever.
“Energy Express is the difference between these kids being and achieving. So many times in education, we cut out the creativity,” Hall said. “This program offers the kids a chance to strengthen their reading skills, to participate, and to see something different from education.
“I get to see these younger kids and the spark in their eyes. They want to be here and, not only that, they want to do well,” she said. “Kids today have such talent. I have taught for 28 years and the kids today, they are just phenomenal. They only need some encouragement and Energy Express, it provides that for them.”
Hall says the Burch site has decided to utilize some area near the front of the school, by turning it into a place where kids can play, read and write. She is currently looking for donations of gravel, sand, basic materials, and labor to make this happen.
For more information regarding Energy Express or how to enroll your children, contact Barbara Taylor Fields (Matewan location) at (304) 426-4719, Stephanie Fabin (Williamson location) at (304) 235-2520, Leigh Smith (Kermit location) at (304) 393-1481, Gary McComis (Gilbert location) at (304) 664-5042, or Melaine Hall (Burch location) at (304) 475 2700.