Day camp aimed to boost reading skills

WEIRTON – A summer program supported by three local churches offered area children the hands-on activities and outdoor fun of a day camp while helping them to hone their reading and writing skills with the assistance of an author with local ties.

A visit by Anna Egan Smucker, a Weirton native and author of “No Star Night” and other children’s books; was among the activities arranged by RaeLynn Kosarik for the week-long summer reading program.

It was held last week at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and supported by it, Olde St. John’s Episcopal Church of Colliers and Christ Episcopal Church of Wellsburg.

The three churches comprise Brooke-Hancock Episcopal Ministries, which are led by the Rev. Gene Sheppard, who assisted in supervising the children during visits to area parks and other excursions.

A former teacher and member of Olde St. John’s, Kosarik led the children in composing journals with comments on visits to Hanover Township Park and Raccoon Creek State Park in Pennsylvania accompanied by photos taken there.

They also created their own books, with stories inspired by images found on napkins bearing the images of various fictional characters, sports or holidays.

Kosarik was aided by Katie Huber, a substitute teacher from Follansbee; and Kaeleigh Patterson, an eighth-grader from Wellsburg interested in teaching one day; and several adults who prepared snacks for the children and assisted as chaperones.

During her talk to the children Smucker noted ideas for stories can come from different places. She said she has scrawled ideas for stories on napkins or scrap paper while eating out and will make many changes to a story before it is published.

She noted famous children’s author Dr. Seuss’ first story, “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” was rejected 27 times before it was finally accepted.

“The lesson there is don’t give up. You just have to keep working. Don’t give up trying to reach whatever is your dream,” Smucker advised.

The Rev. Donald Vinson, canon for missions and transitions for the West Virginia Episcopal Diocese, said the purpose of such summer reading programs is to offer encouragement to children who may have had difficulties with reading and writing.

He said it is one of six held by Episcopal congregations around the state. Initiated by Bishop Michie Klusmeyer, the effort began with two last year at St. Luke Episcopal Church at Wheeling Island and the Highland Educational Project, an educational outreach ministry in McDowell County.

It was inspired by a program begun by the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky.

The West Virginia programs are supported by a $24,000 grant from the diocese’s Roanridge Foundation, and fundraisers, special collections and donations generated by the participating churches.

Vinson said it’s geared to children in grades 2-4 because it’s vital that youth master reading at those ages. After that, it can be very difficult for children to catch up, he said.

“It brings learning almost to a halt if a child can’t read,” Vinson said.

He said the children benefit from the one-to-one instruction offered by the program and are happy at the end of the week when they receive a bag of books to take home.

Smucker, who also works as a children’s librarian in Bridgeport, where she lives, shared her own love of reading with the children.

“I’m always reading. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped,” she said.

But she confessed she had some difficulty reading initially.

“I wasn’t a good reader in school,” she said, but added that reading “is like riding a bike. The more you do it, the better you get at it until finally you don’t have to think about it.”

Smucker told the children by reading a book, “You can travel into the future, you can go to the bottom of the ocean. Reading just opens up the whole world.”

She said to visit such worlds they need only “a magic ticket, and that’s a library card.”

Smucker used a laptop computer to project pictures from two of her books as she read them aloud. She also showed her early drafts, with many words scratched out or added along the side, and preliminary sketches done by the artists who illustrated them.

She noted “No Star Night” was inspired by her childhood in Weirton in the 1950s, when the night sky often was filled with smoke from the local steel mill. In it Smucker relates how she and her friends were awed by activity at the mill, including the pouring of large vats of molten metal.

The author also read “Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Story,” a book she wrote about the discovery of the Golden Delicious apple in Clay County, West Virginia. With six published books behind her, Smucker has two others on the way: one for children about the origin of the pretzel and another for adults about the life of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland.

Kosarik said the children shared their own books with parents and grandparents at a picnic held Saturday, the last day of the program. She said the children’s families “were all impressed by the progress they made and the kids were impressed by what they had accomplished.”

She added she looks forward to offering the program next year and involving more children.