W.Va. National Guard members creating special bonds with area students, teachers

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — State residents already count on West Virginia Air and Army National Guard members to be ready to help in a natural disaster or emergency.

But now, they are reaching out in a new way, and thousands of youngsters are benefiting each week from their visits to area schools as part of the state’s Drug Demand Reduction Program.

Retired Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Billy Gillenwater credited top-ranking military officials in Charleston, including Gov. Jim Justice, for promoting more community interaction through school visits.

Berkeley County (W.Va.) Schools also was an instrumental part in seeing the program become a reality locally, he said during Tuesday’s visit to Opequon Elementary School in Martinsburg.

District officials helped suggest individual schools to visit and teachers with whom to work, Gillenwater said.

Tiffany Hendershot, director of The Martinsburg Initiative anti-drug abuse program and also a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, was instrumental in the early days and continues to support the program, Gillenwater said.

Hendershot praised the citizen soldiers’ commitment to the children because “relationships are the key, and make all the difference” as youngsters move through life. Part of the goal is to encourage them to make good choices from an early age, and positive role models can help, she said.

“We are citizen soldiers, we are part of the community and we can be helping other than when there’s a flood or something else bad going on,” Gillenwater said. “In this case, we like to be part of doing whatever we can to make a difference, including being a mentor or just sitting down to read with students.”

Army National Guard Spc. Sam Winters doesn’t have any children of his own, but that didn’t stop him from volunteering to participate in the program.

On Tuesday morning, he helped kindergarten students Peyton Green and Malcolm Simpkins choose words to write simple, holiday-themed sentences.

He and fellow Army National Guard Specialists Nick Ketterman, John Orlando and Colin Ramsey spent one-on-one time with the youngsters before heading across town to Burke Street Elementary School.

But before they left, students excitedly helped the men learn a new dance as teacher Renee Ritenour led the excited group through the moves.

 

That kind of interaction, coupled with building relationships, is key to its success, according to Principal Tana Burk-hart, who smiled as she watched the fun.

“All the kids have to do is just see their uniforms, and they are so excited to have them here. Dancing is a big deal here, as you can clearly see,” she said. “But we are all fortunate to have them in our school because it is clear how much they care and what a difference it makes.”

The program began locally in March, and now serves 10 schools in Berkeley County, as well as four in Morgan County and one in Jefferson County.

There are plans to expand the number of Jefferson County schools served, and the reception in Morgan County also has been encouraging, Gillenwater said.

“I have 40 years of military service and have traveled all over the world, and this is definitely one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” he said. “This is West Virginians helping West Virginians.”