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Church joins school in helping low-income children

 


Easing School Overcrowding

March  11, 2004

A UMNS Feature By Amy Green*

Bored with sending donations without offering hands-on help, the members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Tucson, Ariz., were eager for a new mission project.

They ended up with a far-reaching partnership with E.C. Nash Elementary, a nearby school in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The church virtually adopted the school, sending volunteers into classrooms, organizing donation drives for books and supplies - even donating a washing machine to give children clean clothing.

It is a perfect mission for a congregation full of retired teachers, says Janet Camp, chairwoman of the church committee in charge of the project. St. Mark's draws about 750 on an average Sunday.

"It just blows my mind how much the school is doing not just to teach the children but to assist the families," she says.

Nearly all of the school's students receive free or reduced-priced lunches, and 72 percent come from homes where English is not the primary language. Church members wanted to help, and they began in fall 2002 by sending about 50 volunteers into the classrooms to assist teachers and give reading and math help. The project grew quickly.

Church members began a books-on-tape program, offering recordings of themselves reading books aloud to help children struggling with English improve their reading skills. Nearly 200 books are available at the school's library.

The church launched donation drives for books, school supplies and backpacks, collecting 500 books and 325 backpacks full of supplies for the start of the 2003 academic year. For the summer months, the church provides "play-school-at-home bags" full of books and supplies to encourage continued learning over the break.

To help kindergartners with a study of the desert, a church member who is a landscape artist designed a garden of plants native to the desert. Church members helped plant the garden at the school in February.

The church also donated a washing machine for children who can't afford many sets of the school's uniforms. The congregation donated hundreds of socks, shoelaces and belts for children. And it launched a printer-cartridge recycling program to raise money for the school's computer lab.

The support means a lot to a school where parental involvement is sparse, says Principal Rusty Farley. She points to the thank-you notes children wrote for their donated backpacks as an example.

"Several of them mentioned that they couldn't believe that a total stranger would do something so kind for them, that there was someone other than their parents and other than us who was caring for them," she says.

The church has raised $5,000 in the past year for the school, including $2,000 from the family of a church member who had been a teacher and died suddenly in January. The family set up a memorial fund and gave all the contributions to the school.

"Our pastor really has a vision of wanting us not only to reach out and help these people but enrich our own lives by increasing our compassion, if you will, and getting to know more of the families down there," Camp says. "I think it's a way to enrich both of our lives."

Eventually the congregation hopes to raise enough money to give laptops to outstanding, needy children and even provide college scholarships.

Melinda Sims is among those volunteering as a teacher aide, and she also directs the church's books-on-tape program. She visits the school once a week to give one-on-one reading help to first-graders. She enjoys watching the children grow.

"These are first-graders, so they can make some pretty amazing steps," she says. "In some cases, I've actually seen that light go on."

The church has succeeded at extending its reach beyond the school, Farley says. Its funds have allowed the school to expand its classes teaching literacy and parental skills to adults. The school also works with the church to help low-income families buy food and find shelter.

Perhaps most importantly, the church has helped boost morale among the staff, she says.

"We feel like we're not alone in this," she says. "We feel like we're not trying to fight this overwhelming battle of poverty and ignorance and second-language issues, that there are people out there helping us. From the staff's perspective, to have an additional 40 to 60 folks to help us is such a blessing."

*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn.   News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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