Churches Reach Out to Latchkey ChildrenChurches Reach Out to Latchkey Children

By Tamie Ross

(UMCom) -- With the start of another school year, many United Methodist outreach programs are targeting latchkey children who may not be old enough to be home alone while their parents are out.

Nationally, 40 percent of children ages 5 to 10 are believed to be latchkey children, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The term comes from the once-common practice among parents of draping a house key from a ribbon around their children’s necks so the children could let themselves in the house.

We saw a tremendous need and an opportunity for us to serve the community. And the need hasn’t gone away, it’s just continued to expand.

The programs vary. Some teach safety and life skills to children, while others provide faith-based child care alternatives. Whatever the mission, the goal is the same - keep children safe while their parents can’t be around.

Parents at Indian Hills Elementary in Topeka, Kan., need only to look next door to find a home away from home for their children. The Susanna Wesley United Methodist Church Latchkey Program opens at 7:30 each morning, and teachers walk children to their classrooms an hour later. After school, the 93 children enrolled head back to the church for a snack followed by a few hours of crafts, games, free play and other activities.

"We have a wonderful program because there are so many people involved," says program director Jaime Maddern. "Our teachers care so much about these children."

Time also is designated for homework and tutoring, Maddern says. The program is licensed by the state of Kansas.

In Wichita Falls, Texas, members of Floral Heights United Methodist Church compose most of the staff for the church’s Latchkey Program, which began about 15 years ago.

Nancy Denney, who leads the program, says churchgoers noticed many children at the local elementary school three blocks away waiting outside for long periods to be picked up by older siblings at the nearby high school and junior high school. Others, some 5 or 6 years old, were walking home alone or waiting alone to be picked up by parents.

"We saw a tremendous need and an opportunity for us to serve the community," Denney says. "And the need hasn’t gone away, it’s just continued to expand."

Latchkey Photo
Children from the Floral Heights United Methodist Church Latchkey Program in Wichita Falls, Texas celebrate during a recent Christmas program. Photo: Floral Heights UMC

The program soon expanded to two other schools. Although the district revamped dismissal times to allow older children to leave school before younger siblings, the program remains popular, Denney says. Like the Susanna Wesley program, the Floral Heights program is licensed.

The congregation’s commitment to the program is evident in the number of specially trained retirees and college students who staff it, Denney says. Each day, men from Floral Heights take buses to and from participating schools, driving up to some 25 children each day. Widows tutor the children and teach crafts. College students play with the children outdoors and pass out snacks.

"It’s a group effort, no doubt about it," Denney says. "And it is an intergenerational effort, which is especially wonderful for so many of these families."

Those who look to these churches for these programs often would be considered lower income families, Denney says. "We can help them. We can take care of their children, give them a nutritious snack and help them with their homework, so these tired parents can take them home and enjoy their evening hours with them a little more, hopefully."

For those who don’t have access to faith-based programs such as these, one option might be an educational session like the one co-sponsored by the Valparaiso First United Methodist Church of Valparaiso, Ind.

The church helps fund the Family House Latchkey Program, which started in 1997. Each September, families of second- through fifth-graders throughout Porter County are offered four-day courses to help them evaluate whether their children are old enough to stay home alone. The courses then educate those children who are old enough on safety, life skills, communication and other important topics.

The first day, we bring parents and their children in together and talk about the children’s fears about staying home or what might be bothering them that they haven’t yet discussed with their parents.

Last year, the program took 160 children from innocence to independence, says Lindsey King, the program’s executive director.

"The first day, we bring parents and their children in together and talk about the children’s fears about staying home or what might be bothering them that they haven’t yet discussed with their parents," King says. "From there, we work with just the children, teaching them fire safety, doing some first-aid training, working on answering the phone, that sort of thing."

Stranger danger and poison control also are discussed, as are sibling issues when older and younger children are home together without parents to referee disagreements.

"Believe it or not, that’s one class unto itself," King says.

King says the gifts given to each graduate of the program - a firefighter’s hat, a diploma, an emergency telephone list - serve as reminders of what they’ve learned.

"Our main goal is to get the children and their parents to communicate about
them staying home alone, to talk about issues that could arise," King says. "If no one’s talking, then there are a whole lot of unknowns there."

*Ross is a freelance journalist based in Dallas., administered by United Methodist Communications, is the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or


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