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McDowell program offers students a place to spend summer

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MANDI CARDOSI / The State Journal. The “Sky’s the Limit” program spans six weeks during the summer and is in its third year. MANDI CARDOSI / The State Journal. The “Sky’s the Limit” program spans six weeks during the summer and is in its third year.
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A summer program for youth in McDowell County has been taking off since its launch three years ago.

The “Sky's the Limit” Summer Program, youth summer program in Keystone, is, according to volunteers and organizers, “dedicated to improving healthy lifestyles & relationships, developing leadership skills and promoting civic engagement.”

The program is part of a collaborative effort between the cities of Keystone and Northfork, along with WV FREE and the WV FREE Action Fund.

“They come back every year,” according to Vondelere Scott, a volunteer. “In McDowell County, there's no recreation for kids.”

Scott, who works for the town of Keystone, said the students are exposed to education, recreation, fundraisers and even some politics.

“They actually went through the process of elections,” Scott said. “Every day has some kind of activity.”

Rachel Huff, with WV FREE, said the program's success relies heavily on family members who donate their time.

“It really wouldn't be possible without parents and grandparents donating their time,” Huff said. “It's been great having some of the same kids in the program for three years.”

Scott said by seeing the same children involved in the program, the organizers are able to see the progress they have made.

“I keep up with them in school, ask them how their grades are,” Scott added. “You don't try to down them; you just do the best you can.”

Scott said they saw a boy several years ago who was one of the most ill-behaved children in the program, but after some of the behavioral portions of the program, he's now one of the most well-behaved children.

Organizers said the program was open for free to all youth in the area who wanted to participate.

The six-week summer program began in 2012 with a question posed to youth: “If the ‘Sky is the Limit' how would you improve health for your peers and what would your community look like?” After hearing from youth, Rev. Jeff Allen, a former pastor of Northfork United Methodist Church and current director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, joined WV FREE staff and community leaders from the Keystone/Northfork area to move forward on implementing the ideas with youth participation, in the form of a summer camp. The summer program kicked off with a community picnic June 20 at a park in Keystone.

A typical Tuesday and Wednesday program agenda includes a healthy snack, physical activity and a learning opportunity of some kind. On Thursdays, CASE WV representatives came to the program to facilitate trainings on educational topics such as Internet safety, bullying, alcohol and drug prevention and nutrition.

The learning opportunities varied from facilitators utilizing Advocates for Youth, Life Planning Education Curriculum on communication to guest speakers discussing the importance of voting and civic engagement, facilitating writing exercises, offering video and filming tutorials and lessons about entrepreneurship. Physical activity ranged from free time and group games at the park, such as Frisbee, soccer and basketball to guest facilitators who taught the basics of Zumba and karate.

For further incentive to complete the program, youth participants were invited to a final field trip to Charleston where they met with state lawmakers, toured the State Capitol, explored the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences and enjoyed an Omnimax film.

The program has had two successful years so far and community leaders, along with WV FREE staff members, continue to strengthen old and new relationships with partners such as Reconnecting McDowell, West Virginia State University Extension Office, West Virginia Statewide Afterschool Network, CASE WV, and Southern Highlands Community & Mental Health Center, among many others.