Congregations go back to school



GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WMC) –The following statement is found in the Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church: “Local churches and all communities of faith must become better informed about the needs of the public schools in their communities and in the country as a whole. Only through adequate information can we defend public education and the democratic heritage which it supports.”

As young people go back to school this fall, congregations across the West Michigan Conference are acting out that challenge in a variety of helpful and supportive ways.
Happening in Jackson
Chad Parmalee (right), pastor of Jackson Brookside UMC, explains that he simply “followed my own two kids” into involvement with the schools. Chad has been serving Brookside for the past seven years so as his kids grew, so have the ways the congregation has responded to needs.
They began filling backpacks for an elementary school filled with supplies, gloves, and scarves. Another church did a major give-away in the fall so the Brookside backpacks are kept in a closet and distributed “on demand” as needed during the year. While a business card goes in each backpack, “We’re not looking for attendance. We just want students and parents to know Brookside Church cares.”
Because of budget cut-backs projects were going undone at the schools. “They had the equipment and material but not the manpower,” Chad says. So volunteers from the church painted the bleachers at the baseball and football fields. They also painted a map of the U.S. at the playground. “We have filled gaps,” Chad notes, “and it has cost us nothing but our time.” The church has also been designated as an evacuation site for the nearby Middle School
“Opportunities have come because I’m around the school a lot,” Chad remarks. This is resulted in significant relationship-building. Chad has planned the high school baccalaureate for the past five years, sometimes by himself and sometimes in partnership with other pastors. The Vandercook Lake Schools have 50% participation in the ceremony, he reports. “We pray, by name, for everyone in the whole class,” says Chad. “That tells students we care about them whether they were able to attend or not.”
Each year a community leader is asked to lead a Professional Development Day with school support staff and 2012 was Chad’s turn. He engaged administrative assistants, janitorial staff, bus drivers class room aides, playground supervisors and food service providers. Chad spoke of this experience in his recent Pastor’s Pen. “The only requirement I was given was to offer my views on the importance of the care our children receive when they are at school. I expanded that to what it means to be a part of a learning community,” Chad explains. He used Paul’s message to the Corinthians. “I’m not doing this to jam religion down your throat,” he said, “but this is where I live. In the church, every member of the worshiping community is important and in the schools every member of the learning community is important … Everyone must do what they were hired to do and realistically a bit more in order for the school system to operate to its potential.” Chad’s wife, Roschenne, was in the audience. She serves as the anti-bullying coordinator.  Last Christmas Chad spoke to teachers at a Christmas breakfast offering, as a parent, praise and affirmation for their work.   
Chad love of high school athletics offers additional interaction with youth. When he goes to games he gives particular attention to players whose parents are not there. “When I know a kid is there alone, I am intentional about saying, “Nice work or nice play.” Something as simple as providing space can be a real gift. Brookside blocked off rooms last spring for standardized tests to be administered to special ed students in quiet, undistracted space. “When test scores go up,” Chad observes, “ both students and the school system benefit.”   
Learning in Muskegon
Following a major restructuring of the district, Muskegon schools opened this fall with some readjusting to do. Over the summer four schools were shut down and two new schools were created. Sixth graders were moved from middle schools to the remaining five elementary schools. During the process 65% of staff was transferred to new locations. Across town in Muskegon Heights an emergency manager, appointed by the Governor in April, turned the entire school system over to a charter school operator in July. Clearly these developments present many opportunities for churches in the cities to lend support.
“I believe that every child needs a good education and that the public schools were designed to do just that,” says the Rev. Diane Gordon (left), Senior Pastor of Muskegon Central United Methodist Church. “As a former public school teacher I know how hard it is to teach when a child is hungry or tired.” It was Diane, on the heads-up from a parishioner, who took swift action as Kids’ Food Basket (KFB) prepared to launch a satellite in Muskegon last spring.
KFB began in Grand Rapids nine years ago. Today their Sack Supper program feeds 4,800 each day. These Sack Suppers attack childhood hunger by providing evening meals to children attending 25 schools in Grand Rapids. Earlier this year the decision was made to create a second KFB site to serve Muskegon Heights, where 90% of school children are estimated to be living in poverty. On April 23 that site began packing meals in Central UMC’s basement five days a week. The meals—500 of them-- were then transported to Martin Luther King Elementary School for distribution to kids five to eight years-old..
The operation took some of the summer weeks off and has resumed operation Oct. 1. During the off months, Central underwent the complex task of licensing its kitchen to enable the preparation of sandwiches and other food. One able member did the necessary training and the considerable paperwork and now assumes ongoing management tasks as Kitchen Manager. Pastor Diane remarks, “I am excited about Central hosting KFB because it’s a wonderful chance to use our space to follow Jesus’ directive that we feed hungry children. Working alongside KFB, with their infrastructure has been perfect.”
Central volunteers lend their hands with others from the community but KFB has done the resourcing, fund-raising, staffing and marketing. “This partnership works wonderfully!” Diane adds. The fall program opened with a new KFB Director for Muskegon, Cozette Thomas. Cozy’s work is cut out for her. She explains that there are six schools on the KFB waiting list in Muskegon. “It takes $30,000 to add a school,” she says.
Central UMC also has a long-standing relationship with nearby Nelson Elementary School. It began with Undie Sunday campaigns and donations of socks, briefs and sweat suits to the clothes closet maintained in the school office. But then Central jumped at the chance to join other community groups when Nelson School organized an Adopt-a-Classroom program in 2010. The church has received its third classroom assignment and “Nelson Angels” are preparing to relate to the teacher and the student with encouragement and material aid. This effort is administered by Central’s Mission Team, led by the Rev. Lynn DeMoss. Lynn shares a memory.  "'I saw you at Vacation Bible School in the park!'" exclaimed a student seeing a Central member who was visiting our adopted class at Nelson School. This positive, enthusiastic response is echoed by teachers, staff and parents who welcome our church's many efforts to be a good neighbor." Friendships are made along the way. "We work together in carrying out the mission of both church and school," Lynn concludes.
Current plans include helping all teachers at Nelson School with their supply needs. A “wish list” has already been created. Central has also assisted for two years with a Secret Santa Program that enables children to shop free for Christmas gifts for their family members. “It only makes sense,” notes Pastor Diane, “that the whole community surrounds these children and the teachers with whatever is needed to make learning possible. Not going to bed hungry is the first of many steps.”
Dr. Doris Rucks, Central member and retired university professor, acts tirelessly on behalf of young learners in Muskegon Heights. Director of the Coalition for Community Development, Doris’ current passion is school libraries. She has organized women to re-open libraries that fell victim to budget cuts in 2010. Quoted by the Muskegon Chronicle after helping the books come out of the storage boxes at Martin Luther King School, Doris said, “I vacillate between being so discouraged that I don’t know what to do, to being quite hopeful. When you see kids who are enthusiastic and bright, you’ve just got to keep on trying.”
~Reported by Kay DeMoss, Weekly News Senior Writer
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