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Tomorrow is Mine camp puts West Virginia youngsters on a course for success

Lt. Chris Graham

The wellbeing of West Virginia’s young people is the key to the state’s future. That’s the philosophy of Dr. Larry Rhodes, a pediatric cardiologist who has been helping children with congenital heart disease at the WVU School of Medicine in Morgantown for the last 13 years.

That simple idea is also the driving force behind Tomorrow is Mine, a weeklong summer camp that was hosted at WVU Tech on the WVU Beckley campus this week.

Working with brothers Dr. John Brick and Dr. Jim Brick, Rhodes developed Tomorrow is Mine as a way for youngsters from rural Southern West Virginia communities to enjoy a traditional summer camp experience, explore careers and make new friends in a healthy, drug-free environment. The free camp drew in 25 students aged 10-12 from Boone, Logan, Mingo, Lincoln, Wyoming and Raleigh counties.

“We believe that many of the things that put us at the top of the bad lists and bottom of the good lists can be traced back to a sense of hopelessness. We also believe that this happens very early in life, so we'd like to instill in these young people that they do have a very bright future,” said Rhodes.

To meet that goal, the camp brought students together to learn about everything from art and music to engineering and forensic science. Students participated in interactive classes and activities, attended a presentation on the five senses, took a STEM construction challenge and worked with the Beckley Fire Department to learn basic CPR and fire safety. They also took off-campus fields trips to Lake Stephens, the National Guard Armory and the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine.

At Lake Stephens, the group learned about Dutch oven cooking and watched sculptor Jaime Lester create a sculpture of one of the students as he taught them about the importance of detail in art. Students put what they learned to work on their own clay-based creations the next day.

Camp counselor Sarah Billotti, a fifth-grade teacher at Mylan Park Elementary School in Morgantown, said students were impacted by the presentation because they were able to see how someone can make a career out of something they love.

"I think that sometimes these young people don't see that a certain career is something that's attainable to them, and just to meet someone who has succeeded in that and has accomplished something was powerful for them,” she said.

Building camper character

Each day of the camp was designed to enforce certain principles or traits throughout the week. Students learned about character. They explored what it means to persevere. They learned about peer pressure and about being the masters of their own actions.

“We talked to them about their circle of control,” said Rhodes. “What's in their control and what's out of their control – and how things move in and out of that circle.”

For Rhodes and the Tomorrow is Mine team, simply telling students that they were capable wasn’t enough. They wanted to instill in their young campers a sense of confidence, so the team structured the camp so that students worked together, learned from one another and made friends with kids they didn’t grow up knowing.

“We want to give them the self-esteem and the confidence to be able to get knocked down today and get back up tomorrow,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes said the camp has been a marked success, and that the counselors at Tomorrow is Mine have been the driver.

“We've got a mixture of people from all ages and from a lot of different backgrounds working with these students,” he said. “There are three school teachers on staff. Three medical students. We have this wonderful potpourri of expertise and it’s serving us well.”

Dr. Mike Hurst is one of those counselors. An ENT surgeon and professor at WVU Medicine’s department of Otolaryngology, Hurst said that the camp was just as impactful for its staff as it was for the students.

"I have been completely blown away by the children,” he said. “They are so smart and inquisitive. They're very focused and capable of so much more than people sometimes give them credit for."

Billotti agreed. As a teacher, she sees children working together in her day-to-day. She said she was still in awe at how the campers connected at Tomorrow is Mine 

“They've worked so well with one another, playing to one another’s strengths and building each other up. It was wonderful to such strong bonds develop in just a week’s time," she said.

Tomorrow is Mine, tomorrow

Rhodes sees a long and storied future for Tomorrow is Mine. Next year, he plans to expand the camp’s breadth, incorporating McDowell and Summers counties. He also hopes to double the camp’s size with a group of 50 students and secure additional camp support.

The camp was run entirely on financial and in-kind donations from organizations, businesses and individual donors. WVU Medicine departments in Morgantown and Charleston supplied funding and items for the campers, as did regional businesses and local rotary organizations.

As the camp began to take shape, support rolled in quickly. That was no surprise to Rhodes.

“West Virginians are good-hearted people,” he said. “This is what they do. If they know people need something, they'll do what they can to meet those needs.”

While driven primarily by the WVU Health Sciences Center, the camp is a collaborative effort that includes support and sponsorship from the West Virginia School of Medicine, The Charleston Area Medical Center, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Marshall University, West Virginia University Charleston Division and WVU Tech.

Rhodes said that his team was grateful for the opportunity to host the inaugural camp in Beckley, and that he plans to return to the campus for next year’s program.

“President Long and the people at WVU Tech have been very supportive and helpful in making this happen. It's just been amazing," he said.

Those who wish to donate in support of Tomorrow is Mine can make checks payable to WVU Foundation - Tomorrow Is Mine Camp. Donations should be sent ATTN: Julie A. Peasak, Office of the VP and Executive Dean, PO Box 9100, 1266 Health Sciences South, Morgantown, WV 26506-9100.