Program works to engage children in reading and the arts
BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — Tucked away in a small building nestled within the woods of Beard Fork in Fayette County, a small building known as the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) stands. Although quiet and secluded, there’s hustle and bustle on the inside, as it serves as one of West Virginia’s many Energy Express sites.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported as of July 2018, 19 percent of West Virginia’s children were living in poverty. Energy Express works to aid those children and many others across the state every summer to gain or maintain reading levels, along with providing them with nutritious meals and exposure to the arts.
Southern West Virginia is a prime area for Energy Express sites, with 17 sites in area counties — Raleigh County with four sites, Greenbrier County also with four, Nicholas County with one site, Fayette County with two sites, Summers County with one site, Wyoming County with three sites, and Monroe County with two sites.
Tia Coleman is just one of the many people who work to make those efforts within Energy Express possible.
Coleman, 29, is the site supervisor for the SALS Energy Express site. This is her second year taking on the job.
A former teacher at Valley Elementary School, which has now closed for consolidation for the K-8 school in Fayette County, Coleman will be teaching at New River Elementary School this upcoming school year. She said she enjoys her time as site supervisor because it allows her to see “her kids” throughout the summer.
The SALS Energy Express site serves roughly 30 children in first through sixth grade by having them take part in read-aloud projects but also by having them integrate writing, drama and art into their reading as well.
“Another important part of Energy Express is the children receive two nutritious meals Monday through Friday, which during the summertime there is a lot of food insecurity, so a lot of our children don’t receive nutritious meals during the summer,” Coleman said. “We do a lot of service projects, so right now our team has been volunteering at Warm Hands from Warm Hearts in Oak Hill (a nonprofit organization with a food pantry and winter wear program for children), and it’s been really great. We are also looking to update the walls at SALS, maybe do some paintings and murals to make it more kid-friendly.”
Energy Express uses a lot of different tactics to get children interested and invested in reading, Coleman said. She explained those in the younger age group often do one-on-one reading where they read with a teenage volunteer and use different strategies.
“The teen volunteer can read to them, or they can do whisper reading where they’re simply just whispering the story that they’re reading. They can also do echo reading where the volunteer reads a part, then the child reads it back to them,” Coleman said. “So they use different strategies when it comes to the read-aloud, and sometimes it’s just the child simply reading to the volunteer on their own.”
Energy Express began in 1995. It works every summer to bring children out of their shell, according to Coleman.
She said the most important goal, though, is to get children more interested in books.
“We seem to reach that goal pretty well, too,” she said. “I notice that a lot of them are more interested in books when they leave the program, and they’re more interested in art, things like that, and even drama. “A lot of them don’t have access to that in their elementary education, so they have a newfound comfort with doing plays and acting. It’s a lot of fun to see.”
When children are out of school for the summer, some may not have access to reading at all — which is one of the many reasons Coleman continues to take part in the program.
“A lot of our children that come here, they don’t have access to books at home, they can’t get to the library during the summer, and sometimes their parents don’t have time to read with them because they are so busy with work and other responsibilities,” she said. “This kind of takes that away, because a lot of the time with our children what happens is, they digress over the summer with their reading ability.
“This kind of helps them stay at the level they’re at, maybe sometimes increase it.”
Payton stood in one of the small rooms within SALS taking part in a read-aloud discussion with one of the several volunteers. While very interested in reading, he couldn’t help but continue to look up from his book, with his black-and-yellow Batman glasses perched upon his nose, and stare at a window with several drawings and paintings taped to it.
He kept staring at one drawing in particular — a blue animal, with large eyes.
“That’s Sonic the Hedgehog,” he said. “I drew that all by myself.”
Payton, 11, is one of the children in the Energy Express program this year. While he’s very interested in reading, he loves the arts even more.
“I love coming here. I get to spend time with people and make new friends,” he explained, “but most importantly, I get to draw, and I’m a really great artist. I love drawing things from video games, and I love Star Wars.”
Cathryn Painter, 18, is one of Payton’s mentors for the summer. She works with him and many other children on their reading abilities so they can increase their skills or at least stay at the same level.
“It’s very important they come here and work to retain this knowledge,” Painter said. “It’s all about helping them move forward.
“Right now I have a student going into the fourth grade that doesn’t even know how to write. If it wasn’t for this program and she wasn’t able to practice with us over the summer, then where would she be?”
The SALS Energy Express site is currently accepting donations for its weekend food baggie project.
The project, which sends children within the program home with meals for the weekend, allows children to fix meals independently without help from their parents.
“We’re looking for things like breakfast bars, easy mac cups, juices, just things they can access on their own,” Coleman said.
For information on how to donate, contact SALS at 304-779-2772.
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com