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The Energy to Serve: AmeriCorps Volunteers Combat Summer Reading Loss and Childhood Obesity

by Raymar Hampshire

Imagine: A mother comes to pick up her children from a summer reading program. Before leaving, her kids timidly pop into your staff meeting to deliver a bouquet of flowers and a big hug to you.

You are an AmeriCorps member and since the start of the summer you have poured every last ounce of energy into helping this child improve her reading -- and it hasn't been easy. At that moment, you realize your service has made a profound difference in her life, and in your own.

This is what we observed last week at Energy Express, a six-week summer program offered by West Virginia University promoting the academic success of children living in rural and low-income communities across West Virginia. They accomplish this by:

  • Providing a summer learning experience focused on reading.
  • Serving two nutritious family-style meals each day.
  • Engaging college students in service through AmeriCorps.
  • Developing strong partnerships involving parents, schools, communities, and state agencies and organizations.

Energy Express is supported by nearly 500 AmeriCorps members who serve as community coordinators and mentors for nearly 3,000 children at 79 sites in 41 counties throughout West Virginia.

It was refreshing to see AmeriCorps members addressing summer reading loss and childhood obesity, two critical issues aligned with the Corporation for National and Community Service's United We Serve: Let's Read. Let's Move. initiative.

A Community Effort

The hallways were filled with the children's artwork, which has evolved during the program. “The program creates an environment where kids succeed," said Alicia Cassels, Director of Energy Express. The site coordinators achieve this by allowing children to freely express their imagination through art and skits, which all tie back to the books they read.

The classroom served as a learning lab where children explored various themes through reading. Labels were used to identify various objects in the room, a word wall helped retain newly learned vocabulary words, and a “reading fort” provided a fun and comfortable place for the kids to escape into a book.

The place-based education model has been very successful in preventing summer reading loss. At the beginning of the program, a site coordinator, selects a random group of students and gives them a reading test. At the end of the six weeks the same students take the test again.

“There is always an improvement in reading,” he said. In fact, results from last year showed that overall children's reading had been maintained or increased, with the average child gaining three months in broad reading achievement.

Lastly, we observed a community that was strongly committed to the program. We met the Principal, who opened up his school for the summer program; the WVU Extension Coordinator, who helped to build the community coalition for Energy Express; and the State AmeriCorps Program Manager, who helped to secure members that served as community coordinators and mentors to the children.

We also met the cooks, who prepared and served breakfast and lunch; the janitors, who made sure the children had a safe and clean environment; and the parents, who volunteered to help.

A Willingness to Make a Difference

Cassels shared a story of a site supervisor from last year, a man with more than 30 years of education experience as an assistant superintendent, principal, and teacher. At the end of the program Cassels thanked him for his service, but before she could finish, he looked at her with tears in his eyes and said, “I cannot tell you how much this program has done for me, thank you for hiring me!”

AmeriCorps members, educators, and countless volunteers are all realizing the difference they are making in children's lives through Energy Express. President Obama has said, “It's as simple as that. All that's required on your part is a willingness to make a difference. That is, after all, the beauty of service. Anyone can do it. You don't need to be a community organizer, or a Senator -- or a Kennedy – or even a President to bring change to people's lives.”

Join with the volunteers of Energy Express and make a difference today. Find volunteer opportunities that address summer reading loss and childhood obesity in your community. Share how you or your organization is joining in the efforts of Let's Read. Let's Move. by posting your service story on our Facebook page or letting us know on Twitter using the #LRLM hashtag.

Raymar Hampshire is Program Coordinator for Let's Read. Let's Move. at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Ryan Stern is the Executive Communications Coordinator for the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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