Program promotes reading fun

FOLLANSBEE – A peek through the windows of the Carlin Dodrill Field House at Follansbee Middle School reveals not maintenance crews washing the floor or painting the walls, but a group of children painting pictures and acting out scenes inspired by the latest book they have read.

The activities are part of the Energy Express program sponsored by the Brooke County West Virginia University Extension Service to help children develop a love of reading. It’s Brooke County’s fifth year to participate in the program, which was begun 21 years ago and has sites throughout the state, including Hancock County.

Through the Brooke County program this year, about 35 children gather for a half-day Monday through Friday to read stories and engage in various creative activities inspired by them.

Diane Lucero, a retired Brooke County schoolteacher serving as its coordinator, said the children may paint scenes from a story, recreate scenes from it with puppet shows or plays or write their own alternate ending to the story.

“There’s a lot of creativity and writing. Any art they create must have writing attached,” she said.

About 35 children in grades first through sixth have been participating since the program began June 23. It will end Aug. 1, with an open house for the public to be held there from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Mark Mazzella, community coordinator for Energy Express, said the group also will accept donations of nonperishable food and new or gently used clothing for a food pantry and clothes closet being started at Brooke High School by Principal Toni Shute.

Children eligible for free and reduced price lunches at school are targeted for Energy Express, but any child may participate.

Each day the children receive a free breakfast and lunch through C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc., a Weirton-based community action agency that has secured a federal grant to provide free meals to children there and at local parks and other sites.

The food is served in large bowels and placed on tables so the children have the experience of serving themselves, passing the food to others and using table manners. Lucero said the children created their own placemats for the meals and may be asked to write about what they ate or plan their own menus.

Assisting Lucero are Mazzella, Kirsten Minger, Gabby Floyd and Shelby Kamarec, all participants of the AmeriCorps program; and several adult and teen volunteers.

Each day the children read three books, based on such themes as friendship, family and community service, and each receives a book to take home with them each week.

As community coordinator for the program, Mazzella also recruits community members to serve as guest readers or read with the children one to one.

“The whole idea is to maintain where they’re at (educationally) and not have that summer slide,” Lucero said.

But she noted an effort is made to keep things fun. The children were taught a special handshake to greet each other and take outdoor breaks for tag and camp-style games.

WVU Extension agent Jason Rine said Energy Express is part of the extension service’s 4-H program and has benefited from the cooperation of the Brooke County Board of Education and Brooke County 4-H Leaders Association, a $300 grant from the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce and contributions from First Choice America Federal Credit Union, Wellsburg Kiwanis Club and WesBanco.

Lucero and Mazzella said the children’s parents also have donated various items and they welcome donations of arts and crafts material, particularly paint.

Those interested in serving as readers or donating materials may call (304) 737-3666.

When the Brooke Energy Express program was moved from Jefferson Primary School to the gymnasium within the Follansbee Middle School fieldhouse, the AmeriCorps workers employed some ingenuity in creating separate “classrooms” for the various age groups. Cafeteria tables, tarps and volleyball net poles were used as dividers.

Lucero said while the site presented challenges initially, it has been good because it allows her and Mazzella to survey activities in several areas at once, something they couldn’t have done if the groups were in classrooms.

An elementary major at West Liberty University, Mazzella, said, “I’ve always been interested in education and after this opportunity arose, I jumped at it.”

Floyd, who also is studying elementary education at WLU, said, “I love it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

(Scott can be contacted at