by Susan Brown
Children coping with multiple challenges, adults anchored by experience and faith, and a vision for mentoring, not with one-size-fits-all formulas but simply by bringing people together. Kids Hope USA provides a weekly academic workout and an environment that nurtures children into the realization that they are important, that they can be successful.
The real question is, “How could we not do this,” according to University United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Colleen Bookter whose church partners with University Terrace Elementary. “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’” Matthew 25:44.
Five local churches have teamed up with schools through Kids Hope USA to match mentors with children in K-5th grades. Through Kids Hope USA, one church typically partners with one school to send mentors for an hour each week at a time convenient for each mentor and teacher. The mentoring hour includes time for conversation, academics and fun.
“It was just a vision from God,” said Rev. Linda Joseph of Neely United Methodist Church, in partnership with Polk Elementary School. Seventeen years ago, she realized that although churches were on nearly every corner of her neighborhood, they were not working with schools to eliminate poverty. As a counselor at Baton Rouge High School, she had noticed the stark contrast in kids with a good foundation, and community kids who were struggling both scholastically and socially.
“I think it’s so rewarding when a child is in middle school getting ready to graduate and says thank you,” said Rev. Joseph. “You helped to mold, shape and nurture this young man and look at him now. He’s smiling. He feels so good about himself and, yes, he can do it. Yes, he can be a success.”
These kids are dealing with more than the average childhood issues. Talking helps them work through their concerns and reassures them that someone cares when a mother is taken to jail, when their house burns down, when they’re trying to adapt to a new country and language, or when they’re struggling with delayed learning.
“Reading levels improved dramatically; math improved in many situations,” said Kathleen Conrad, KHUSA co-director for Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in partnership with Progress Elementary School. “Children become more open and friendly. I think it’s because of the one-on-one relationships – I’m here for you.”
The influence of one caring adult is more profound than many people realize, according to University United Methodist KHUSA Director Shirley Flake. A student from Rwanda emailed to tell her he was graduating from high school, 11 years after his family fled genocide in his home country. Upon arrival in Baton Rouge, University Terrace Elementary immediately placed him in the Kids Hope USA program. Although he had lost contact with his mentors, he had not forgotten their dedication to his academic success and their glad hearts.
“I want to thank you as well for being the director of this wonderful program that gave me a fighting chance,” Elie Nyembo wrote. “If you could somehow contact the people that I named and tell them thank you as well it [would] bring me much joy.”
The academic and social challenges facing these children seem daunting to some volunteers, according to Lisette West, KHUSA director for The Chapel in partnership with Wildwood Elementary. The school draws students from the LSU/Gardere area and includes a large international population. She recalls encouragement from worship leader Jonathan Madrid: “If you think you’re not equipped to go and visit with an at-risk child, then great! Because now you’re going to depend on the Lord for every day.”
“God has been good through the whole thing, and let us know we can’t do anything without him and everything with him,” said Kathleen Conrad. That’s where prayer partners come in. Every mentor has a confidential prayer partner from the church who prays for a specific child. A prayer group also meets weekly at Camphor UMC and prays for KHUSA concerns. “Academic struggles improve as a result of patience we have prayed for along with the ability to grasp what is being taught,” Conrad said. “‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’” Philippians 4:13.
“It’s hard to describe how you feel when you’re praying for that child,” said Betty Hodges, prayer coordinator for Zachary United Methodist Church. “You’re talking to the mentors and they’re telling you what they need prayer for, then to see the children themselves. It’s just remarkable.”
While Kids Hope USA respects separation of church and state, mentors sometimes face spiritual questions from children: “Does God still love my daddy even though he’s in prison?” “When I’m afraid, I can ask God to protect me, right?” One first grade teacher wrote, “You all are letting your light shine, and shine HE will, even when we can’t speak his wonderful name!”
The idea of a school-church partnership can be a tough sell at first, according to Zachary UMC KHUSA Director Bonnie Byland whose church partners with Zachary Elementary and Rollins Place Elementary. While the school system is 100 percent behind the program, teachers had their doubts and church members didn’t see the need.
“We get it. When you’re a classroom teacher and someone says, ‘Hey we have a volunteer who can come and help you, you just think – oh my goodness! What kind of can of worms is this going to open for me?” said Byland, a retired English teacher. “Now the school’s comfortable with us because many teachers have seen the program and it’s just going like crazy. They’re seeing confidence in kids; they’re seeing a decrease in acting out behavior because they’re getting a little bit of that self-esteem and positive reinforcement one-on-one.”
Another challenge was educating the congregation about community needs. “Zachary is the number one performing school district; it’s perceived as a relatively affluent community,” said Byland. But when the church realized that 40 percent of the children in their schools qualify for free lunches, they threw their support behind the program, not only with volunteers but also with supplies, household goods, Wal-Mart gift cards, and field trip scholarships.
Often, the mentoring experience leads a church to invest other resources. University UMC and Camphor Memorial UMC teach edible gardening. Most KHUSA churches help with special holiday events and collect supplies and uniforms. The Chapel donated its entire Easter offering to community projects, including major funding to set up a Hope Center at Wildwood. At the principal’s suggestion, the new building provides space for mentoring and a community-parenting center complete with computer stations.
“Our hope is to work alongside the principal’s vision which is to hold every child as a valuable person in this world to a higher standard than they’ve been held to before and to work with parents to offer resources for finding jobs, for finding the assistance they need,” said Wildwood KHUSA director Lisette West.
“They give of their time generously and the bond that is built with the students is strong and lasting,” said Wildwood principal Natalie Jadid. “As the school principal, I am grateful for the extra hands and big hearts that work with our students individually on social, academic, or life skills that will lead them to successful futures. WILDWOOD LOVES KIDS HOPE USA.”