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The High Rocks Academy has offered inquisitive eaters inside looks (often outside), insights, and instruction lately on food subjects ranging from Appalachian delicacies such as ramps and pepperoni rolls to ways to spot and harvest morel mushrooms in the wild.

Now in their second year, the free, food-intensive Folk Arts and Culture Workshops started on March 19 in Pocahontas County. They will continue through mid-May, with participation opportunities still on the table, so to speak.

High Rocks Academy Farm Manager Casey Withers oversees the 10-workshop series, which is produced in partnership with Berea College in Kentucky. “The Folk Arts and Culture Workshops are pretty much based on carrying forward Appalachian traditions, and our series this year has had an emphasis on food,” he explained. “Each workshop normally runs about two hours. It gives us a chance to engage with food, fellowship, and fun.

“The main program I manage here is Ruby Grow, a youth agriculture program,” Withers added. “The students in that program also go through the workshops. They help us plan and facilitate them and get some practice hosting events.”

Withers said the most popular workshop this spring, so far, has been the Trout-to-Table meal in mid-March. “We worked with Knapps Creek Trout Lodge in Marlinton on that. Participants got their own cleaned trout from the lodge and then prepared, cooked, and ate it.”

Withers said the High Rocks Academy also collaborates with Berea College on another set of free, public workshops called Grow Appalachia. The outreach education program is for Appalachian families, providing them skills and resources to grow sustainable, nutritious food; teaching them how to make and preserve food in a healthier manner; encouraging and empowering them to share their gained knowledge in their communities; creating programs to provide food to elderly and disabled residents; and developing local farmers markets to sell their surplus food.

Upcoming programs

Along with the trout-to-table program, previous folk arts and culture workshops this spring have included visits to the Mountain State Maple Days, replete with buckwheat pancakes prepared in a cast-iron pan, at the Yew Mountain Center in Hillsboro, and a Seed-to-Skillet gardening program at the Ruby Grow Farm.

This weekend’s workshop will be an Appalachian Apple Baking event, taking place at High Rocks’ Hub café in Lewisburg from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 30. The Hub Café is located at 232 Lee St., North.

From 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 7, “Campfire Cooking” will be the topic of discussion and instruction at the High Rocks Academy. Participants will learn how to prepare campfire meals — later to be sizzled, sampled, and savored around an actual campfire.

The final spring workshop will entail the art and science of growing shittake mushrooms on logs. It’s scheduled for 3 until 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, also at the High Rocks Academy. High Rocks staff members will provide mushroom spawn and logs; participants are encouraged to bring their own logs, if they prefer.

The High Rocks Academy

The High Rocks Academy’s declared and overarching mission is to educate, empower, and inspire West Virginians, primarily teen and young adult females.

Longtime public school teacher Susan Burt founded the academy in the mid-1990s with a group of friends. It began modestly as a summer residential camp for middle school-age girls (see related article).

Today, Pocahontas County native Sarah Riley serves as the High Rocks Academy executive director and marvels at its history. “We’ve been doing this for over 25 years and never thought it would last this long,” Riley said of Burt’s original outdoor adventure venture. “We now run about seven major programs, but the heart of it is our High Rocks Academy program.”

The High Rocks Academy camping program has been designed traditionally and deliberately for females in seventh through 12th grades.

“These are transformational summer camps with lots of STEM activities, creative arts, and outdoor adventure,” Riley explained. “We really, really, really work to make this an inclusive environment for teenagers around the state.

“In 2020, we had a hybrid camp. It was partially virtual. We sent boxes of camp supplies for all of the classes — we even sent them each a hammock. Our camp came to them in 2020, but last summer, we returned to [onsite] camp, following the safety protocols. We had seen the level of academic loss and the escalating teenage mental health crisis, so we thought it was really important for them to get back to camp.”

‘Classrooms without walls’

The High Rocks Academy’s New Beginnings summer camps allow their participants to experience nature in “classrooms without walls,” while simultaneously exploring ideas and developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills that can shape and enhance their future.

The West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, fund the camps, along with other donor support.

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This year’s New Beginnings Camp is scheduled for June 13 through June 25. Admission is open to current seventh and eighth grade students. The camp also includes leadership opportunities for young adults and college interns; it welcomes staffs of professionals from around the nation to provide guidance and mentorship.

In New Beginnings, campers are assigned to groups of six to eight who rotate through math, equine activities, creative expressions, outdoor science, holistic leadership, and other disciplines. Each camper is given a daily “chore” to perform before convening around a campfire at nightfall, prior to “lights out” at 9:30 p.m.

The Camp Steele program is scheduled for July 15 through July 30. Camp Steele is designed for rising eighth through 12th grade students, with a variety of tracks available to pursue, such as media, art, social movements, construction, food culture, and robotics, among others. According to academy literature, these tracks resemble “mini college seminars providing more in-depth learning than most girls have experienced in other academic settings.”

Camp Steele also features junior counselors who have attended the New Beginnings camps or other High Rocks programs.

Riley said each camp’s membership numbers approximately 40 girls. “That’s to keep it intimate and give them more opportunities to connect with other people,” she explained.

Summer camps for girls

Camps are open to female teenagers across West Virginia. “The camps were for residents of Pocahontas, Greenbrier, and Nicholas counties,” Riley said, “but we lobbied for two years to become a statewide program, which we became about three years ago.

“Our classroom is the creek, the trees. Campers get to work with horses, have a lot of beautiful river time, and see some of most beautiful nights of stars.

“I’d put these camps head to head with any camp in the U.S., no matter how much it costs. It’s a five-star experience.

“One thing that’s taught me that most strongly is the alumni involvement, not just when they were in high school or college. Many have stayed for years afterward. We have several alumni coming back to the camp this year to pass their experiences on to a new generation of High Rocks girls. Our camp director, Amber McClure, is an alumna of the program,” Riley said.

McClure, who is also a Pocahontas County native, will undertake her first year as camp director this summer. “I was a camper back in 2009. To this day, I still have my journal from camp and can remember so many great things about the experiences camp gave me,” she said.

After graduating from West Virginia University, McClure returned to Pocahontas County and “sort of fell back into High Rocks.” She has served at previous camps as an AmeriCorps volunteer and a staff member. “It’s a magical experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities to create that experience for young girls in West Virginia. It really expands your beliefs in yourself and just empowers you to be a positive light in the world — especially now when we’ve seen a lot of difficult times lately.

“I think one of the biggest things for me about the camp is the opportunity to really grow, find yourself, and experience something that’s not typical and not ordinary. Creating that for the girls is my favorite part of this job, and it means a lot to me,” McClure said.

Riley added that AmeriCorps volunteers are encouraged to join the camp staffs this summer.

“It’s all about building leadership and building community. When people ask me who the camp is for, I always tell them it’s for young people looking for more, looking for a challenge to strengthen them and expand their horizons, build out their networks, and become stronger than they are. You’ll step out of your comfort zone and you’ll love it. Kids who’ve gone through High Rocks programs really stand out in the crowd. If you want to stand out in a crowd, it’s a great place to be,” Riley said.

“High Rocks hopes to cultivate girls who go back to their communities and take the great things that they learned at camp, like empowerment and different kinds of sciences and maps and reading and writing and make that community better,” Gillian Snyder, an academy alumna and youth advisor board member, said in a YouTube video promoting the camp.

Fellow alumnae and youth advisory board members also discussed the camp’s attributes in the video. Faith Johnson said the ideal High Rocks participant would be someone who is “ambitious — and likes dirt,” while Stella Neeley said the camps are desirable destinations for girls “who are willing to do something that they haven’t done before. They’re willing to do an adventure, they’re willing to get hurt along the way, and they’re willing to make friends, too.”

“I think High Rocks is trying to put confidence in the girls,” Johnson added, “and let girls know that their worth isn’t just what society tells them.”

To discover more:

The High Rocks Academy is located at 195 Thompson Road in Hillsboro. For workshop information and summer camp registration forms and requirements, directions, scholarship opportunities, or more details about its programs, go to www.highrocks.org, call 304-653-4891, or email info@highrocks.org. More information about donating to or volunteering for the academy is also available via those contact sources.

Metro reporter Clint Thomas can be reached at cthomas@hdmediallc.com or by calling 304-348-1232.

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