“For over four decades, the community has cultivated a comforting, welcoming environment, living sustainably and at one with the earth, and always looking inward in order to reach outward to the broader community” Does this sound like the latest environmentally conscious craze? Not quite! Big Laurel Learning Center located near Kermit, West Virginia, described here by Director Grace Williams, has actually been bringing environment-focused education to the region since 1976. “Big Laurel is a sacred place among the forest, high on the ridge above Marrowbone Creek.”
Described by Grace as a “mountain community inspired by the force of God”, Big Laurel Learning Center started as a mountain school, and is currently an environmental and educational non-profit. They currently offer educational outreach through overnight ecology summer camps, and in-school lessons at Kermit PK-8. They also act as a hospitality and retreat house, hosting dozens of visitors on a yearly basis, from high school and college students to Alcoholics Anonymous retreats as well as individual and family visitors.
As the director of Big Laurel, Grace has many diverse responsibilities. “I garden and hike with kids, cultivating curiosity and appreciation for one of the continent’s most biodiverse regions,” she says. “I write programming, grants, and reports, piece together stories and budgets, and build plans and schedules. I host guests, welcome strangers into my home, help cook community meals, and spend time with them talking around bonfires late into the night, and sharing pieces of our lives with each other.”
Finding Peace and Calm In Nature
Big Laurel offers four different summer camps for kids. Each one is a week-long overnight camp for kids in the region, and every year focuses on different ecological themes. This year’s theme is “The Food Chain”. They’re also offering social and emotional learning themes, such as “Resilient Minds, Active Bodies”.
“Big Laurel is incorporating lessons to encourage kids to find peace and calm in nature through hiking, gardening, swimming, and being outdoors,” Grace says. “This summer, campers learned that when our brains get more oxygen, and our bodies are in the sun, the serotonin levels in our minds raise, boosting our moods and allowing us to be more focused and calm.”
Help from A Community
All their summer camps are mentored by a sponsoring volunteer group. This summer, those groups are Adrian College, St. John’s Jesuit High School of Toledo, Notre Dame AmeriCorps, Volunteers of Cincinnati, and Molloy College. Many campers and mentors return year after year, and create great bonds with one another and the world around them.
Big Laurel also hosts a big firewood cutting weekend every fall. “This tradition has been going strong for over 30 years,” Grace says. “Volunteers join us from near and far to saw, split, haul, and stack the winter firewood for the Big Laurel Community.”
A Sense of Belonging
Big Laurel also invites groups to be a part of the mission throughout the year, in the form of service immersion trips, AA retreats, and other events. “We encourage volunteers and guests to join us in living simply, serving others, asking hard questions, challenging stereotypes, and being present in the world around us,” Grace says. “We hope that visitors go home with a new appreciation for Appalachia, her ancient mountains, biodiverse forests, wonderful people, and rich traditions.”
Grace believes that the most valuable thing they offer the region is a special sense of being at home. “The most important thing we offer is a special sense of belonging and appreciation,” she says. “Everyone who comes to Big Laurel is treated like family. Whether they are a little kid coming for a week of summer camp, a young adult joining us for a year of service through AmeriCorps, a neighbor joining us for a work day, or an individual on retreat, they are a part of our story, and we wouldn’t be who we are without them.”
To learn more about Big Laurel Learning Center, you can contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call them at 304-393-4103. You can also visit them at their website, or find them on Facebook.
All photos from Big Laurel Learning Center Facebook page