Service in a Pandemic: Justin Rodriguez, Big Laurel Learning Center, Kermit, West Virginia

Service in a Pandemic: Justin Rodriguez, Big Laurel Learning Center, Kermit, West Virginia

Notre Dame AmeriCorps Members are lay people working to further the educational mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, both here and abroad. They serve in 24 cities and in Haiti and number more than 400 people. Their situations, as with most of us, have unexpectedly taken a turn due to the pandemic. Yet their work goes on. Over the next several weeks we’ll highlight some of their stories.

Justin first came to Big Laurel Learning Center as a Wheeling Jesuit University student. Located on a 400-acre environmental land trust, Big Laurel works to educate young people about the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental issues. Justin planned to spend a few days of his fall break volunteering, learning, splitting firewood, and having fun. He never dreamed he’d find himself back at Big Laurel as a Notre Dame AmeriCorps member. As such, Justin worked as an assistant teacher for the third and fourth grades in the nearby elementary school, helped manage the school’s gym classes, and hosted guests at Big Laurel.

As the pandemic hit, people in rural West Virginia began facing new challenges of even higher unemployment and school closures. A concern in the community was that families who normally relied on school meals would be additionally burdened. With other teachers and volunteers, Justin began delivering meals to 65 students and their families. This is one way that Justin has enjoyed interacting with the larger community and seeing his students since classes ended in March.

Since many educational facilities and programs have been closed, children have been spending most of their time at home, some without their parents’ supervision, and many without age-appropriate games or activities. Big Laurel is working to fill that need by mailing activity care packages to their students and campers. Justin has helped to send activity care packages to 97 kids.

Justin also continues his work to maintain the facilities at Big Laurel. The cancellation of visiting groups has given them the time to make some much-needed repairs and improvements. Justin has assisted in repairing fencing, clearing trails, deep cleaning the guest houses, building barn doors, hauling recycling, and splitting firewood.

Justin will continue to deliver meals and activity packets throughout the summer. As the restrictions begin to loosen, Big Laurel hopes to host small groups and individuals so that as many as is safely possible can still enjoy the beautiful nature and creation that is all around.