Laura Dean Bennett
Imagine a bustling rustic lodge, nestled on a mountainside in Pocahontas County, filled with girls’ and women’s voices and energetic young ladies to go with them.
That’s what I found when I visited High Rocks Academy in Mill Point last week.
Upon my arrival, I was greeted by girls of various ages, all smiling and welcoming.
I was struck by the self-confidence and maturity of these “campers.”
We had a delicious lunch, which included a fresh salad and vegetables right out of the garden – the High Rocks garden and high tunnel as it turned out.
And there were stimulating conversations taking place – no screens, no cell phones – they are not allowed.
All of the young women were intelligent and enthusiastic, and each would have made an excellent spokesperson for the camp.
Faith Johnson, of Hillsboro, is a rising senior at Pocahontas County High School. She may be a bit young for a senior, having skipped two grades.
“High Rocks has given me a lot of opportunities to flourish,” Johnson said. “Living in a rural area it’s sometimes tough for young people to have a lot of opportunities.
“Women’s engagement is so important, especially for Appalachian women. It’s important for us to have a platform.”
Mabel Eisenbeiss from Greenbrier County started coming to High Rocks just after finishing seventh grade.
She graduated this year from Mary Baldwin University, in Staunton, Virginia, with a 3.6 grade point average.
“High Rocks is like my family,” she said, “This is a community of people that I love, and they love me.”
Nearly 100 percent of High Rocks “girls” go to college and pursue a professional career, as this camp places a strenuous emphasis on academics.
Sarah Riley, Executive Director of High Rocks Academy, says that the camp and all of the High Rocks programs are about empowering young people.
The programs are for girls from age 12 through – well, right now, age 29 is the oldest.
New Beginnings is the camp for younger girls – middle school age and younger – as well as for those coming to camp for the first time.
Then there are the pilot youth centers – one in Lewisburg, called “The Hub” and one in Richwood called the “Steele Studio.”
“Whether they want to go out into the country and the world or whether they want to stay here at home, we want them to have the choice,” Riley explains.
“So many of our kids are still growing up with the message that to be successful, they have to leave West Virginia. And that’s just not always the case.”
When they sign up for High Rocks camp, each applicant is asked to write a letter about why she wants to come to High Rocks, and why she will be a good investment.
Considering that High Rocks camp costs $2,200 per year for each girl, and that no one pays for camp, this is no small investment.
There are about 60 girls in the camp each summer.
High Rocks has opened some of its satellite programs in Lewisburg and Richwood to boys, too, bringing the total number of young people in High Rocks programs to about 100.
Most of the campers at High Rocks come from Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Nich-olas and Kanawha counties, but some come from farther afield.
Funds for the camp come from private donors and grants.
As you may imagine, the fundraising efforts go on all year long.
The Youth Advisory Board is coming up with some new fundraising ideas.
There’s an honor code at High Rocks which, apparently the girls take very seriously, as disciplinary problems are a rarity.
The four “pillars” of the High Rocks philosophy are memorized by everyone at the camp.
• Engagement with Learning
• Leadership Development
• Health and Wellness
• Community Engagement
High Rocks encourages all of its participants to be hands-on in every phase of camp life.
These are not your typical students in a typical teaching environment, these are girls selected for their willingness to step forward and be responsible for their own futures.
The lodge, tucked up in the forest near the top of an adventurous road, where many of the classes are held, has computers and wifi.
It reminds one of a multi-level ski lodge with its beautiful wood paneling and open beam ceilings.
Everyone who stays at High Rocks in the winter, sleeps in the lodge.
But in the summer, things move outside.
The girls take the “Zen Trail” that leads up the hill from the lodge to the campground.
In the summer, campers sleep in the several wooden cabins in the campground.
The conditions in the campground are rustic – there is some electricity, but no indoor plumbing.
And the staff camps in even more basic style – they sleep in tents in the campground.
But no one seems to mind.
In fact, it’s as though the young women thrive on every challenge put before them.
They are bright and healthy and more than happy to share their stories.
Sixteen year old Shayna Hammons will be a junior at Pocahontas County High School this year.
This is her fifth year in the High Rocks program.
“I love High Rocks because it’s a judgement free zone,” she said. “And I can explore experiences here that I might not have ever had otherwise. High Rocks pays for all our field trips and college visits. I’ve already visited twenty-two universities in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia.”
After lunch, Hammons heads off to a class called Mountain Movements.
The class is organized like a typical, but competitive, college class, teaching the history and culture of West Virginia and examining our social justice issues, our economy, history and environment issues.
During a typical day at camp the girls go to the Media Center to work on three to five minute films.
Every day they explore colleges and college preparation in the College Center and they work in the STEM Lab, which includes robotics.
One of the girls’ favorite classes involves horses.
“The horse class always gets the highest reviews,” Hazel Riley said. “The horses are really the teachers in that class.”
Twenty year old Caitlyn Barnes is an instructor with the horse program where campers are taught about both English and Western riding.
But before they learn to ride, they are first taught how to “think like a horse, handle them, grooming, tacking up and then, eventually, riding,” Barnes explains.
Barnes has been attending High Rocks since she was 12 years old, and she’s back this year an an intern.
“An intern does everything nobody else wants to so,” she laughs.
Barnes is a student at Shepherd University studying Environmental Science as her major.
She’s elected a minor in geographic information studies (GIA), which means analyzing spatial data and using computer modeling to make maps.
She’s in the AmeriCorps program, and she’ll get an educational grant when she fulfills her contract of 450 hours of work this summer for a $1,500 grant for tuition.
“High Rocks has done so much for me,” Barnes said. “It brought me out of my shell and taught me to challenge myself academically. So now, I’ve come back to give back to others.”
“I would put High Rocks up against any fancy academic camp in the country,” Sarah Riley said. “All of our classes focus on being a stronger learner.
“I ask the girls to answer this question, ‘what does it mean to be educated?‘
“I believe the answer is that being educated means being an expert learner.
“We are always learning – all throughout our lives.”
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org