Cards, washer/dryer, center among the answers
When the Rev. Jenny Anderson arrived at Hopewell United Methodist Church in Tyrone, Georgia, in 2016, she inherited a relationship with three public schools. The elementary, middle and high schools are all within walking distance of the church.
"Hopewell's relationship with the schools had been going on for several years," Anderson said.
Good communication supports the good relationship between the church and the schools, she said. "The schools are good about letting us know what they need."
"One of the administrators told us the teachers and staff could really use some encouragement," Anderson continued. "So, one of our members who makes beautiful handmade cards makes the cards and passes them out to our members who then write notes of encouragement to the teachers and staff. They do this every month. The administrator said these notes mean so much."
Garden feeds, teaches
Hopewell has a community garden, consisting of 30 raised beds for vegetables and flowers. The church and schools cooperate to use them both for the community – and for the good of the students.
"The middle school students built the raised beds for us," Anderson said. "Besides the vegetables, we planted flowers that would attract bees to help with pollination. The teachers use the garden to teach about plant science and the whole cycle of food production."
The community garden serves as a source of fresh vegetables for the students in the high school culinary arts program to use in cooking.
"They harvested potatoes, onions and kale, lots of kale," Anderson said. "They cooked with everything they harvested."
The high school's class of 12 special needs students also learn from exposure to the garden and the church.
"These students came to the church for an hour each week and did community service," she said. "They worked in the garden, did some cleaning up around the church and made cards and cookies for the elementary school students. They really enjoyed it."
Reaching out to the schools has shown the town of Tyrone that Hopewell is committed to being a good partner.
"We want them to see not only that we love people," Anderson said, "but that we will work alongside them to make our schools better."
‘Ask them what they need'
Two elementary schools in Wichita, Kansas – Park and Washington – benefit from a partnership with First United Methodist Church.
Libby Eaton, First's director of adult discipleship and school partnerships, is the liaison between the church and the school administration and staff. A retired elementary teacher herself, Eaton understands the issues facing the public schools.
"These schools need help," Eaton said. "And our people want to help children." She calls it a universal United Methodist thing.
"The first thing to do is to ask them what they need," she said. "It's that simple. Just ask. Then, let God take charge."
When Eaton began her ministry position at First, she contacted the social worker at Park and asked what the school needed. The social worker told Eaton her dream was to have a washer and dryer at the school. With about 95 percent of the students living in poverty, clean clothes were an issue, and the social worker would often take students' clothes home at night and wash them.
Eaton said she would see what she could do. She let people in the church know about the need.
"The next day a member called me," she said, "and told me a realtor friend of his had a house she'd just sold that had a washer and dryer in it. The new owners had their own, so she (the realtor) needed to get rid of the set in the house. She asked if he knew anyone who could use it. Only God could make that happen! Not only did the school get the washer and dryer, the realtor donated a year's worth of laundry detergent!"
Eaton said she believes any church can help their local schools. "Even in a little town, maybe one church couldn't do much on their own, but you get a few churches to work together, the results can be good," she said. "It's not about who gets credit; it's about helping the kids."
Support for the ministry comes from generous donors and a portion of the tips from Mead's Corner, the church's non-profit coffee house. "It's not a line item in the church budget," Eaton said.
Eaton has information to share about what she has learned to help support schools and children. She welcomes anyone to email her at [email protected] to get a copy.
With right staff, teens will come
St. Luke United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, is in the heart of the city, across the street from Burke High School, one of the three largest high schools in the city.
Church people noticed students hanging around and wandering the neighborhood after the close of the school days. Instead of being suspicious, they were curious about why that was happening.
They discovered those students were not eligible for bus transportation and were waiting for working parents to pick them up.
Seeing the need, church members decided they could meet it.
St. Luke opened the Teen Center in 2007, brought Abbey Jackson on staff to direct it and partnered with Burke and Nebraska Methodist College in an after-school program for teens.
"You hear it's too late to change a high schooler's life," Jackson said. "You hear high schoolers don't want after school programs. But if you staff it with people who care about them, they will come. We are the only after school program for high schoolers in the city. Our first year, our goal was to have 20 consistent youth. The first day we opened we had three. Now we have 135. I love that the church was willing to take the risk."
Jackson described the Center's programming as "goal-oriented, intentional and student-focused. We work to address the whole student, breed leadership and set a foundation for future success." The Center has five primary areas of work: academics, college prep, health and wellness, alumni support services and student/family services.
"A public school, a private university and a church have collaborated to make an impact on these kids' lives," she said. "It's the best of a lot of worlds. We are in the school. We have access to the kids. The parents know we are advocates for their kids."
The Teen Center recently hired a second full-time staff person to work with Jackson. Also serving the students are a half-time staffer, eight Burke teachers paid by the school and a large number of volunteers. The new hire is an alumnae of the program.
"She was one of the first students who walked through our door in 2007," Jackson said.
Jackson, whose background is in journalism and public relations, said she was working in her field in 2007 when God called her to work more with people than with paper. She saw the posting for the Teen Center director position and applied.
"The first two years were really tough," she said. "But the clergy staff at the church was wonderful, so kind and so patient. They really believed in the program.
"When we opened the doors, we didn't know who would come in, but these kids are great."
Polly House is a freelance writer now serving as editorial assistant for Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Originally published in Interpreter magazine, July-August 2017.