It all started with a question — one that has been answered by children, parents and community leaders in Northfork and Keystone, in rural McDowell County.
"If 'the sky is the limit,' how would you improve health for your peers and what would your community look like?"
The Sky's the Limit, a six-week summer program held at Keystone City Hall for kids between the ages of 4 and 16, celebrated the end of its third year by visiting Charleston on Thursday. The program, organized by families, coalition members and WV FREE, the state's largest reproductive-health advocacy organization, was developed out of a need for more early learning opportunities in Northfork and Keystone, according to Nate Smith, assistant director of the program.
"It's a lot of the same educational things you'd find in the classroom, as well as crafts and everyday, basic lessons with each other," Smith said. "We had a program camp years back that we did, and we never let go of the idea of building up Sky's the Limit with the kids of this generation . . . . [On-site manager Vondelere Scott] came up with Sky's the Limit, and we went from there."
Rachel Huff, education and outreach director for WV FREE, said Sky's the Limit's goal of improving the overall health of its community is closely aligned with the mission of WV FREE, and the agency has helped coordinate the program since it began in 2012. The program teaches young people leadership and decision-making skills, how to build healthy relationships and lifestyles, and dedication to civic engagement, she wrote on the West Virginia School-Based Health Assembly website in January.
"Obviously, we want people to have overall improved health and, in particular, reproductive health, so that they're able to make decisions that are good for themselves and for their families," Huff said. "You can't really do that unless you have equitable access to education and health care."
The agency visited communities in McDowell County several years ago in what Huff called a "listening tour," trying to gauge the problems impacting various communities there, as well as what community members wanted for themselves and their futures. Huff said those in Keystone and Northfork, two neighboring towns that each have populations of fewer than 500, expressed great interest in starting a program, and helped fuel Sky's the Limit.
"McDowell County was definitely a focus, because they tend to have poor health outcomes and fewer opportunities, and we did a listening tour with people in communities throughout the county, but the adults in Keystone and Northfork really wanted to work with us," she said. "It really helped with that partnership, in that they were really ready for more programming and more youth opportunities."
There were more than 30 kids involved in this year's program, and nearly half traveled to Charleston on Thursday to celebrate the end of the summer with a pizza party, games and a visit to the Clay Center's science gallery and IMAX theater.
Donna Wilkins, a Keystone resident and the grandmother of LaKayla Wilkins, 8, and Ramone Wilkins, 4, said a co-worker recommended the program to her and that her grandchildren will participate again next year.
"The hands-on learning and communication with other kids has been great for them," Wilkins said. "They'll definitely be back."
During each day of the program, which ran for two hours three days a week, the kids were given healthy snacks, engaged in physical activity and were offered learning opportunities that ranged from video and film tutorials to writing exercises.
Marla Brown, 12, has been in the program since it began, and said Sky's the Limit has given her the chance to do more and explore more in her own community.
"Usually when I was at home, I wouldn't have anything to do,” she said, “but then I came here."
Drew Gupta, a junior at George Washington High School and a volunteer with Sky’s the Limit, said the summer program is an important tool for kids to branch out and connect with other parts of the state.
"It's meant to reconnect kids across the state," he said. "The Sky's the Limit is meant to give these kids an opportunity to see other parts of the state — places other than McDowell County — and I feel it's important to make those connections not only in McDowell, but all across the state, to give them more opportunities to share ideas and help one another."
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.