Youth combine reading and fun

FOLLANSBEE – Leaders of a summer reading program hope to encourage children to enjoy reading by getting them involved in books in a creative way.

Youth in grades 1-6 have been challenged to create their own stories, drawings and artwork based on the variety of books they have read since the program began on June 24.

And their parents, family members and other community members are invited to see their work and learn more about the voluntary summer program at an open house to be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Jefferson Primary School.

Many schools are quiet during the summer, except for maintenance workers and construction crews busy with repairs, additions or cleanup efforts they hope to complete before the new school year begins.

But for the last four years, the Brooke County West Virginia University Extension Service has held the Energy Express summer reading program at Jefferson Primary School.

This year 48 children from various areas of Brooke County have enrolled in the half-day six-week program, where they receive additional instruction in reading using books geared toward their age group and take up pencil, paint brush, paste and other materials to recreate scenes and characters from their reading.

“Each Friday they get a book to take home and keep. That’s always a big thing for them,” said Audrey Kocher, a Brooke County schoolteacher who serves as site coordinator for the Brooke County program.

She added the books fall into a different weekly theme: myself, family, friends, home, community and making the world a better place.

In keeping with the last theme, organizers of the program are collecting school supplies to be distributed to Brooke County children during the open house and the program’s regular hours, from 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday through Aug. 2.

In addition to the WVU Extension Service, this year’s program is supported by AmeriCorps, which pays stipends to young adult mentors who lead the children in the various activities; and funds remaining from a $2,000 Community Participation grant secured by former state Delegate Roy Givens last year.

Liz Gatts, the program’s liaison with the Brooke County WVU Extension Service, said she’s applied for two possible grants to fund it next year.

Kocher said support from AmeriCorps has allowed the program to divide the children into groups of eight for each classroom, a ratio that allows them more one-to-one instruction.

The program targets children who receive free or reduced meals during the school year but is not limited to them and provides free breakfasts and lunches during the program as part of C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc.’s summer food program.

The Weirton-based community action agency also provides nutritious meals at several public parks as well as a few other school-based programs through a federal grant from a separate program.

Unlike school breakfasts and lunches, meals at Energy Express are served family-style, with bowls placed at the center of the tables and the children encouraged to display good manners while passing the food around.

Energy Express isn’t a new program, having begun 20 years ago in West Virginia, but it’s relatively new to the Northern Panhandle. Response to the Energy Express program in Hancock County has been so strong that it’s offered at sites in Weirton and Chester.

The three are among 80 held throughout the state, Kocher said.

She said there’s much interest in Energy Express in Brooke County, too, but transportation has been a barrier. The children’s parents must bring them to the school and that’s not always feasible for working parents, she explained.

But Kocher and Haley Dalton, community coordinator for the program, encourage children’s parents and other family members to visit during the open house or at other times, possibly as guest readers.

Dalton noted one pupil’s mother visited recently and he was excited about showing her the art he had created.

“I think they do better (in school) when the parents are involved,” she said.

Kocher agreed, saying, “Parent involvement is part of the Energy Express model.”

Dalton is one of eight college and high school students with various career goals who serve as leaders for the program.

A Weirton resident, Dalton will be attending West Virginia Wesleyan College this fall and pursuing a career in nursing. She said working with Energy Express gives her good experience working with other people.

Kocher said many of the mentors have found the program has helped them to hone supervisory and communication skills needed in various fields.

A visit to the various classrooms reveals that mentors and children both are having fun.

“It’s really fun. I get to make stuff out of cardboard and paper and I get to draw,” said Kris Obeldobel, a pupil from Colliers.

“We do fun stuff. We play a lot of games,” said Grace Douglas, a pupil from Wellsburg.

Among her favorite games is “Assemble This,” which challenges the children to work together to form the shape of a common object or animal, explained Kevin Kidd, a West Virginia University student serving as mentor.

Pupil Will Coy of Follansbee said he has enjoyed reading various books, including an installment of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.

Maria Elliott, a pupil from Wellsburg, said she has enjoyed the artwork and reading “Riding Freedom,” a novel inspired by the true story of a woman who posed as a man to serve as a stagecoach driver.

(Scott can be contacted at