By Kelly Vincent
St. Louis Public School District developed a Faith Initiative program which partnered individual schools with local churches to assist in student achievement. Children’s ministry staff, Rev. Brenda Stobbe and Susan Logsdon, imagined this might be a perfect fit for a Living Word Mission and, in the summer of 2017, arranged for their church to partner with Meramec Elementary, a school with a diverse, transient population, every child qualifying for free breakfast and lunch. Discussions with the principal, Jonathan Strong, and other administration would determine priorities for its newest mission, Balancing the Scales.
The church began immediately addressing needs and wanted to support the staff as well as the students. Living Word kids helped make Welcome Back boxes filled with candy, supplies, and personal items for the teachers and staff. Anticipating winter weather when many kids walk to school, the church began a drive for coats, hats and gloves. The Living Word congregation generously provided as needed, not only those items, but additional school supplies, backpacks and uniforms throughout the year.
They purchased a badly needed sound system and a generous church member donated a washer and dryer. In addition, volunteers prepared meals for staff during parent conferences and Teacher Appreciation Week. In December, Living Word volunteers hosted a Christmas event where Meramec kids, along with Living Word kids, made gifts for family members.
Principal Strong’s primary concern, though, was students reading below grade level. Research shows that after third grade, children deficient in reading skills are less likely to be successful in future learning and even subsequent employment. To remedy this would require time and ongoing commitment.
Raising the students’ skill levels in the couple hours a week each volunteer spent with them would be the challenge. A portion of the 16 volunteers recruited had classroom experience and available materials with which to work. Others focused on being reading buddies, or working with sight words, word families, and phonics, all elemental components of reading, within small groups.
They discovered fairly soon, however, that a number of children were lacking the basics. They had to teach them the alphabet first. But the volunteers found it gratifying, nevertheless, when a student accomplished that. Such minor victories, they hoped, would lead to greater improvements that would manifest themselves over time. To accelerate that possibility, they had a book drive in May that elicited 2,000 books and enabled each child to shop for books to build their own home libraries. It is a tenet of reading that to learn to read, one must read.
The children are very receptive to the church volunteers working with them. Most are delighted to have the individual help. During training, the school district had advised the volunteers not to initiate any physical contact with a child, but they could respond appropriately to theirs. Volunteers are often greeted with hugs and hand-holdings and “I missed you!” The love and passion that Living Word has for this mission returns to them in force. They keep in mind what the district’s volunteer coordinator told them in training. “The most important thing you can do is create a positive, life-affirming relationship with our kids since so many do not have it anywhere else in their lives.” As one volunteer remarked, “There has yet to be a time spent at Meramec where I have not felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit and an undeniable assurance that I am where God wants me to be.”
It’s been a successful mission to date with Living Word receiving a Stellar Award from the district at the conclusion of the school year. More importantly, when Strong asked his teachers what they wanted for next year, one of them replied, “I just want the church to come back.” They will, hopefully with twice the volunteers. Plans for next year are already in the works: reading nooks on two floors where students can read independently in quiet and more volunteers recruited and trained. Serving at Meramec has given the church the opportunity to truly understand what it is to be the hands and feet of Christ.