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Friday, November 16, 2012

All-purpose, all year

What may be the lake's best-kept secret, the W.E. Skelton 4-H Center, is utilized out of season as well as in.

Korean War veteran Carlton Baker of Hendersonville, N.C., holds an M1 rifle while Vietnam War veteran Vince Aldrich of Lewis, Del., looks on.

Photos by SHERESE GORE | Laker Weekly

Korean War veteran Carlton Baker of Hendersonville, N.C., holds an M1 rifle while Vietnam War veteran Vince Aldrich of Lewis, Del., looks on.

Amber Wilson (left), 4-H Youth Development extension agent, helps two Dudley Elementary School students with their Eco-Bot robotics project. Working in groups, the students assembled a small robot using a toothbrush head and a watch battery for a power supply, to simulate an oil spill cleanup effort.

Amber Wilson (left), 4-H Youth Development extension agent, helps two Dudley Elementary School students with their Eco-Bot robotics project. Working in groups, the students assembled a small robot using a toothbrush head and a watch battery for a power supply, to simulate an oil spill cleanup effort.

Dr. April Cheek-Messier, vice-president of education at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, gives a presentation on life on the homefront during World War II to a gathering of Road Scholars.

Dr. April Cheek-Messier, vice-president of education at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, gives a presentation on life on the homefront during World War II to a gathering of Road Scholars.

Jason Hardy, executive chef of the Westlake Kroger, teaches cooking students how to prepare corn fritters.

Jason Hardy, executive chef of the Westlake Kroger, teaches cooking students how to prepare corn fritters.

They come from great distances, meet new people on their overnight stays and go on learning adventures. But they aren't your typical campers at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center in Wirtz.

They are Road Scholars, older adults who travel from across the country and globe to attend educational tours at the Skelton center.

On this day, the Scholars are gathered in an assembly hall on the 120-acre campus to hear April Cheek-Messier of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford lead a presentation about life on the American homefront during World War II.

"I figured it was a good chance to learn more," said Joan Smith-Walleck of Woodbury, Conn.

While the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Center is best known for its warm-weather activities, the center is not used only for summer camp, said Executive Director Roger Ellmore.

"There are a lot of people in this county that have no clue what we do out here," said Ellmore. It's a great resource for the community that, quite honestly, is being underutilized."

The dream of the center's namesake, William Skelton, was that the center would one day be the largest in the state, according to his son, John Skelton of Blacksburg.

"His whole life was the philosophy for others to better themselves," said Skelton.

W.E. Skelton's dream has been realized, and in doing so, the 4-H center has evolved from a place where school-age children learn horseback riding and canoeing to one that offers cooking classes to adults, and is host to family reunions and educational gatherings such as the Road Scholars.

"We wouldn't be very good stewards of the donations if we didn't use this thing all year-round," said Ellmore.

Outdoor pavilions and 16,000 square feet of meeting space can be rented for retreats, conferences and weddings; guests of all ages stay on campus with housing and meals provided.

But unlike the summer campers, adult groups have the option of choosing between two standards of housing: conference-style, which comes with provided linens and light room service, to the cheaper and pared down "camp style."

This isn't the Hotel Roanoke, Ellmore said. Housing is basic: There are no televisions in most of the rooms and many walls are cement."It's pretty straight-forward," said Ellmore. "There's something to be said for tiles and cinderblocks."

The center's dining hall, which is slated for renovation, seats 400. The Skelton Center's dual nature again is at work. Tables can be linen-covered or left bare, and there are two types of silverware used depending on the style of housing purchased.

Classes are offered year-round at the center. Adults can take a class that teaches the techniques of the late landscape painter and TV personality Bob Ross; a new instrument; or how to organize their personal spaces.

The 4-H organization is the youth development arm of the national Cooperative Extension System which provides agricultural and consumer education to citizens from a network of field offices associated with one of the nation's 109 land-grant universities.

Virginia Tech, is one of Virginia's two land-grant universities, and the Skelton Center's high-speed Internet access is connected to Tech's computer system. Groups utilizing the center's conference rooms can rent everything from slide projectors to podiums.

Fifty years after the center admitted the first campers, construction continues to change the face and the outlook of the center.

In 2011, a 8,750-square-foot welcome center was completed, and existing buildings such as the Smith Central Activities Building, one of the original three buildings, was redesigned to include more office space. In front of the Activities Building, a flag pavilion was built to honor the five branches of the military.

Standards are increasingly green. Energy-efficient windows were placed inside the Central Activities Building, and half of the cooling and heating needs of the James A. Meador Nature Education Building are provided by a geothermal heating unit placed in Smith Mountain Lake.

In 2010, the center finalized the construction of the $1.3-million John G. Rocovich Jr. Regional Shooting Sports Complex. The building, certified by the National Rifle Association, opens to the outdoors; bullets hit an earth embankment. Equipment is similar to that of the FBI training academy in Quantico, Ellmore said.

True to the dual nature pervasive throughout the center, the gallery is used by a local chapter of the National Rifle Association and the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, but summer months are reserved for teaching school-age campers the principles of gun sportsmanship.

"We haven't forgotten why we're here," he said.