By Laura Wood
The public education system in the United States faces challenges from every side. Budget cutbacks, a struggling economy, and needy families pile work on teachers and administrators. Critics judge from the sidelines, further discouraging those who have devoted their lives to serving children. Several churches around the country have decided to make a difference in their local school districts.
Second Church of Christ, Danville, Illinois
At the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, Second Church of Christ in Danville, Illinois began a relationship with a school 10 minutes from their church building. Kiley Garrison, student minister at Second, spearheads the church’s work with East Park Elementary School. Second Church of Christ is primarily a middle class church with little racial diversity. However, East Park Elementary’s student body consists of a variety of ethnic groups, and almost 77 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunches.
Kiley says that a good relationship between the administration and the church leadership has helped their work take root. Their ministry includes showing appreciation for the teachers and staff by giving gift bags of candy and thank you notes and by providing pizza and doughnuts on standardized testing days. This winter the church held a clothing drive to bring in coats, hats, and gloves for the students as well. Kiley personally mentors two boys from the school. He meets with them 30 minutes each week “to talk and play games together . . . .
It has been a very small commitment on my part, but I know it’s made a difference in their lives and mine.” The church members have been very supportive of the ministry to East Park so far, and when Kiley shared his story of mentoring during a service, several people expressed even more interest in expanding the program.
Northeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky
Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky began a partnership with Malcolm B. Chancey Elementary School, a suburban school near the church, in January 2012. Jenna Burns, marketing director at Northeast, says that they began a partnership with Chancey because they were looking for ways to reach out to their community. They also chose Chancey because, according to Jenna, the principal “cast the vision of where she wanted the school to go, which included opportunities for us to help them accomplish that vision.” Additionally, one of the church members was a former PTA president at the school and volunteered to serve as liaison between the church and school.
Northeast provides a variety of ministries and activities for the students, teachers, and staff at Chancey Elementary. In addition to traditional needs-based ministries like donating backpacks and school supplies, they host two events every year: Princess Night and Boys Rule Night. They have also formed a Granny Club, in which members of the church volunteer in classrooms for an hour or two each week. They organize teacher appreciation events and prayer for the teachers and mentor students in recreation-based activities such as Elevate recreation and Girls on the Run. Volunteers from the church are currently working on planting and maintaining a garden at the school. Last November the congregation raised more than $27,000 to buy iPads for use in the classrooms!
While Northeast staff member Randy Gordon initiated the relationship, most of the ministry is organized and carried out by volunteers. The school administration works closely with the volunteers, often suggesting opportunities and creating a vision of ways the church can be involved. As Jenna puts it, “We love being in their school, and they love that we’re there. We see it as a win/win situation for everyone involved.”
LifeSpring Christian Church, Harrison, Ohio
Jeff Duerler is the site minister of the Harrison campus of LifeSpring Christian Church. Jeff says that before the church began meeting in Harrison in 2008 the leaders approached the schools to discern their greatest needs. The school administrators suggested that the church reach out to Harrison Elementary School.
Located in the downtown district of the small town of Harrison, Ohio, the school has a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches. Many of the families are transient, and students often come from unstable home environments.
In reaching out to these children, the church has partnered with City Gospel Mission in their Whiz Kids program. The Whiz Kids ministry provides tutoring and mentoring to at-risk elementary students. This is LifeSpring’s fourth year participating in Whiz Kids, and they have been well received by the students and their families, as well as by school administrators and teachers.
Additionally, the church shows Christ’s love to the families of the school by providing Christmas gifts to the students. Instead of buying gifts and randomly distributing them, volunteers organize a party for the Whiz Kids children, while shopping buddies from the church take caregivers shopping for their children. The caregivers are able to take the gifts home and give them to their children on Christmas. As Jeff puts it, this way “they haven’t had their dignity stripped from them.” The church has also provided backpacks full of school supplies for the students and on spring break one year, the church provided “snackpacks” to help carry them through the vacation—a time when many of the children may not get regular meals.
Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri
When budget cuts forced the St. Charles school district to eliminate the summer school program at Blackhurst Elementary School last year, the staff decided to put together a voluntary summer school program. Second grade teacher Amy Overton approached her church leaders with the idea of participating in the program, and they jumped on board. Since then, Harvester Christian Church has partnered with Church of St. Charles, Calvary Church, and other community volunteers and has taken Blackhurst under its wing.
Not only did Church of St. Charles allow the summer school program to meet on their premises two mornings a week, but they, Harvester, and Calvary provided funds, sack lunches, and nearly 50 volunteers from the churches and community. The program is powered entirely by volunteers, so expenses are very low. This year, it will be held at the school itself, and Harvester has provided funds to bus the students to and from the program.
Many of the students at Blackhurst come from low-income homes. Seventy percent of them receive free or reduced lunches and 40 percent of the students do not speak English at home. Harvester and the other churches have provided for some of their needs by donating clothing, food for the children to eat on the weekends, school supplies, and toys for Christmas. Volunteers also read to the students and tutor them weekly.
Amy says that several elements have come together to make the churches’ involvement in the school particularly successful. First, the school’s administration has welcomed the churches and has provided opportunities for volunteers to work with students. Second, the churches have seen overwhelming support from the congregations. They volunteer in order to show Christ’s love to the children, but they know that “they cannot preach or talk about the Bible, and they have respected that every step of the way.” According to Amy, they “want nothing in return and only want to love like Jesus!” That love shines through and has provided critical support for children who need it.
Laura L. Wood is a freelance writer in Papillion, Nebraska.
Resources for Tutoring, Mentoring, and Supporting Schools
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Sponsored by City Gospel Mission in Cincinnati, Ohio, Whiz Kids, a ministry designed to provide tutoring and mentoring for at-risk elementary school students, is expanding nationwide.
Girls on the Run uses running to teach girls to feel good about themselves. It promotes positive self-esteem and a healthy lifestyle. Mentors train for a 5K with the girls and then run a 5K with them at the end of the program.
Elevate is a recreation-based ministry that has the goal of positively influencing children on a consistent basis. They reach out to children who are struggling and provide fun activities in a Christian environment.