The Big Laurel area, like much of West Virginia, was settled in the late nineteenth century by people determined to blend self-sufficiency with a commitment to community. This ridge-top, above Marrowbone Creek in Mingo County, has been home to generations of struggles and dreams.
In the 1940’s, Edwina Pepper (1893-1988) settled on the mountain and dedicated her life to preserving its land and culture. She founded The Mountain Call (1973-1979), a journal of mountain lore and life. She pulled together parcels of land to form the John A. Sheppard Memorial Ecological Reservation [JASMER], a land trust which enables families to return home and which preserves the land as an ecological reserve.
A class of students at Big Laurel School with Sr. Gretchen and Sr. Kathy (back row, right).
A 1977 issue of "The Mountain Call" announcing the opening of Big Laurel School.
The Big Laurel Citizens Association was incorporated in 1975 by Edwina Pepper with three goals in mind.
a. To provide equipment and funds which will assist the low-income residents of the Marrowbone Creek watershed in the manufacturing and creation of craft products unique to said area and marketing the same.
b. To provide means and methods to supplement the educational opportunities available to the residents of the Big Laurel Fork of Marrowbone Creek area, such as a local school for the children of said residents and craft in which local residents will find the tools for home improvement and the creation of furniture and works of utility and art objects.
c. To secure for the residents of the Big Laurel Fork of the Marrowbone Creek area food at the lowest possible price and where possible to make available to said residents, food that is grown naturally and organically.
Edwina Pepper then enlisted teachers to create the Big Laurel School (1976-1988) which embodied a special dream: a community-based education for local children, steeped in Appalachian heritage and looking outward to a larger world. After the school closed, Big Laurel School changed its name to Big Laurel Learning Center, Inc. in 1990.
Sisters Gretchen Shaffer, CSJ and Kathleen O’Hagan, SND continued to shepherd programs at Big Laurel Learning Center. Over the next three decades, Big Laurel welcomed dozens of long-term volunteers and community members. Big Laurel ran a food pantry at the Old Marrowbone School, worked along side the Marrowbone Senior Center, hosted The Outdoor Classroom field trips for local grade school students, hosted an annual fall wood cutting program, and facilitated ecology summer camps.
Cutting and hauling firewood, 1978.
In 2016, Big Laurel Learning Center welcomed Ian Noyes as the new director. Under his two year tenure, Big Laurel continued to work to provide youth outreach, tutoring, environmental education, summer enrichment, service immersion trips, and addiction recovery. Noyes also began a school garden class at Kermit Pk-8.
Today, with director, Grace Williams, community members, staff, volunteers, and AmeriCorps members, Big Laurel facilitates approximately 18 immersion trips and four summer camps annually.
Big Laurel provides a space for celebration, reflection, and learning for many groups and individuals throughout the year. Big Laurel summer camps get kids outside and exploring a 400-acre environmental land trust in Central Appalachia, one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.
Sisters Gretchen Shaffer, Jeanne Laufersweiler, Kathleen O'Hagan, Mary Joyce Moeller, 2005.
AmeriCorps Volunteers, Jacob Zondag and Grace Williams; former volunteer, Lydia Noyes; director of Big Laurel, Ian Noyes, 2016.
Director, Grace Williams; former volunteer, Jacob Zondag; AmeriCorps Volunteer, RJ Flinn; Mingo County teacher, Craig Hart, 2019.
Through games, guidance, and hands-on activities, participants discover the region’s rich natural heritage and create lasting memories. By providing service immersions for high school and college students from across the US, Big Laurel hopes to open their eyes to some of the injustices in this world and the systems in place that make and keep people poor. We strive to share our understanding of the increasing divisions and inequalities manifested in many ways in Appalachia. Big Laurel's addiction recovery program hosts retreats and service trips intended to help build a healthy support system for people in recovery. Faith, action, commitment, time, and service are a few the necessary elements for initial recovery from addiction as well as continued sobriety.
Garden class at Kermit Pk-8, 2019.
To help fulfill the vision of holistic education, Big Laurel's Director and AmeriCorps members, live onsite and serve in the greater community as teaching assistants, youth mentors, environmental educators, and community organizers. Through weekly addiction recovery sessions at Serenity Point and creative lessons in agriculture and gardening at Kermit Pk-8, we not only share tangible skills, but also work to help others regain confidence in their abilities to learn and succeed
Big Laurel Learning Center is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization.