For six weeks in the summer, part of Marlinton Elementary School is transformed into a learning camp, directed by Energy Express. Youngsters in kindergarten through sixth grade participate in the free day camp, where they work with mentors and volunteers to improve their reading and writing skills, as well as discover their inner creativity.
“The foundation is the reading part of it,” site coordinator Dustin Lambert said. “In addition to that, there’s a writing component, drama, self-expressed art – which is really important. It’s not just cookie cutter art. It’s ‘here’s some found objects, be creative.’ That kind of art.”
The students have recreation time, and breakfast and lunch are served each day.
This year, mentors Kaitlin Sparks, Katie Gibson and Allie Luikart have drawn inspiration from the outdoors and wildlife to create an inviting environment for their young people. Sparks and Luikart decorated their classrooms with a camping theme, while Gibson created an underwater theme, referring to the students as a school of fish.
“When the mentors come, they already have an idea of what they’re doing,” Lambert said. “I always marvel at that. I’ve been doing this for five years, and I never had it work out to where they had the same themes.”
Each mentor is assigned an age group, and they work with those students each day, with the help of community and student volunteers and community coordinator Dondi Stemple.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Stemple said. “[Extension agent Luci Mosesso] said something to me about Energy Express and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ When I found out what I was going to be doing, I decided I had to help. This definitely is worthwhile.”
Stemple was so thrilled with the number of volunteers who have already come to work with the students, that she created a door decoration to celebrate their contribution. Before a volunteer leaves for the day, they must trace their hand and decorate the piece of paper with their name to add to the door.
“Look at all of our volunteers,” she said, gesturing to the “hand-filled” door.
The volunteers help by reading to individual students and groups, as well as organizing supplies, including the copious amounts of art supplies and books.
A stroll through the multi-purpose room during Energy Express may make a visitor wonder why there are piles of cardboard and paper on the floor and tables filled with art supplies, but it isn’t trash – it’s an art project waiting to happen.
“We’re basically pack rats,” Lambert said, laughing.
“This looks like somebody didn’t clean up,” Stemple added, pointing to a pile of packing material. “We’ve got trees. There’s a trunk of the tree and branches.”
The collection of supplies has become a marvel to the mentors who are always in awe when Stemple is able to deliver on their requests.
“The girls keep asking, ‘is this like Mary Poppins’ bag? I keep asking you for something, and you go get it,’” Stemple explained. “That’s what teachers do. This is all crammed in my cabinets because you never know when you’ll need it.”
That doesn’t even touch on the number of books the program has available for students. Each mentor is required to have at least 64 age-appropriate books in their rooms, and they trade out for new ones throughout the six weeks.
The volunteers organized the books into piles according to the theme of each week.
This year, Energy Express is all about expanding from yourself to the world – the themes are Myself, Family, Friends, Home Place, Community and Make My World a Better Place.
“The volunteers have put the books into groups – like this is family week – so you can go over there and there’s a group for family week,” Stemple said. “They’ve gone through and stacked them, so when the mentors come in, they don’t have to sort through all those books.”
The students who participate aren’t the only ones to benefit from Energy Express. The mentors and coordinators are employed as AmeriCorps members and receive a living allowance, as well as an education award which can be used toward college expenses.
For AmeriCorps members who do not plan to go to college, the education award can be passed on to a child or grandchild of the volunteer.
“I can hold on to that for seven years, so my oldest granddaughter is eleven – in seven years – she may possibly be ready to go into something, and I could then take advantage of that award,” Stemple said.
The mentors, who must be registered college students, also get a boost to their résumé and life experience. Of the three mentors this year, Gibson is the only one seeking a degree in education, but working with the students is just as helpful to the other mentors with other degrees in mind.
“This is just an experience,” Lambert said. “I think it’s more of a résumé booster for mentors to say ‘I was in a structured national service program.’ This is considered volunteer work. This is considered community service, so I think there’s a perk to that. They’re not receiving a huge paycheck, but just to be able to say they worked for AmeriCorps, that really stands out on a résumé.”
Energy Express would not be possible without the West Virginia University Extension Service and AmeriCorps, but the program also runs well because of community members who donate their time and supplies.
“We would like to say ‘thank you’ to every one that’s volunteered,” Stemple said.
Although the program has quite a collection of supplies, Lambert and Stemple said they would graciously accept donations – including art supplies and child-appropriate magazines and books.
To give the community an opportunity to experience Energy Express as a whole, the group will host an open house Tuesday, July 23, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at MES.
“The community is welcome to come and see what we’re doing and what Energy Express is all about,” Lambert said.