"Some years ago, our bishop asked, 'Who would notice if you closed your church?'" recalls the Rev. Richard Jacobsen, pastor of Oakwood United Methodist Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. "I thought it was a great question. We needed to find a niche where we could work to meet needs."
In October 2011, Jacobsen says he led his congregation to serve the community's 700-student elementary school and to hold funerals for those who had no church.
"The goal was to meet the needs of the poorest kids in our community," he explains. "We wanted to be Jesus' arms and feet to go to and embrace a world that had lost its way."
As Jacobsen and the evangelism committee, led by Kathy Austinson, developed their relationship with Jefferson Elementary School, they learned of greater and more systemic needs of the students and staff.
The Jefferson Adoption ministry expanded to more than just donating clothes to the school nurse for emergency needs. People also began donating school supplies and meeting additional needs identified by the principal or school counselor.
Support teachers, staff, students
"We learned that the neediest kids take the most energy on the part of teachers and staff," Jacobsen says. "That's why we began donating teacher/staff appreciation gifts that say, 'Thanks for loving our kids.'"
He says gifts and thank-you notes include apples from a local orchard, packets of flower seeds "for bringing life and inspiration to our kids," pens on lanyards "for our superheroes," containers of microwave soup "for being 'souper,'" plastic compasses and candy "for being a guide to our kids," and homemade Christmas decorations and cards.
"When we give out these gifts, we leave a large basket of them with posters in the teacher's lounge," he says. "But two evangelism team members grab handfuls and walk about the school taking them to cafeteria staff, custodians and teachers saying, 'Thanks for loving our kids.' You cannot believe how well this is received."
Oakwood Church's United Methodist Women became involved in the early childhood education of the school district by supporting an annual baby shower for all women in the community who have given birth within the past year or are pregnant.
The women provide snacks, childcare and gift bags to the participants. This year, they distributed 52 bags containing two sippy cups, a devotional for moms and an invitation to a parenting class and worship at the church.
During one of his regular visits to the school's front office, the school counselor mentioned to Jacobsen that the neediest children could not afford the school's healthy snack program. The school needed $2,500 to cover the cost.
"We suggested that the school write a grant," he says. A member of the evangelism committee helped the school prepare a grant request that brought the needed funds from a local service organization.
"We have been doing this project for four years; each year we grow the project to include new areas of need," says Jacobsen.
Many of the results were measurable. "The number of people that we have participating in this ministry has grown," he notes. Volunteers donate money and materials, put together appreciation gifts and help with the baby showers," he says.
Outreach achieves goals
"Three family units have joined our church as a result of this outreach. We have had five baptisms — two adults and three children — and we have had three professions of faith because of the Jefferson outreach."
In 2014, district teachers awarded Oakwood Church the Lay Educator of the Year Award.
"To date," Jacobsen says the church has "not written grants to cover any of these projects, but next year our plans are much bigger; we are preparing to write two grants."
For 2015-16, the school plans to partner with four other churches and the school district to pay for four school assemblies and a teacher in-service training on anti-bullying and positive self image.
Oakwood Church also plans to work with First United Methodist Church and the Ministerial Association of New Ulm and Independent School District 88 to provide transitional housing for single mothers and families.
"This is an attempt to keep kids in school when their lives are disrupted by homelessness," he says.
Jacobsen says he was especially pleased when a few older members told him, "We now know who would miss us if we closed the doors to our church. We would be missed by the neediest kids of our community."
Heather Peck Travis is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow, Kentucky.
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