Ministry, leaders give kids can-do attitude

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Ministry, leaders give kids can-do attitude

March 22, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0642}

NOTE: See also related stories — “Conference Table participants say children should be top priority” {0635} and “United Methodists urged to put weight behind support of children” {0634} under More Headlines on the e-Review home page at:
An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

Esther Kelly never uses the word “can’t” in her vocabulary, and she doesn’t allow her Prime Time After-School Program students to use it either.

“Don’t come here with that with me,” she says to her students. “I don’t want to hear: ‘I can’t do this’ and ‘I can’t do that.’ ”

Kelly, 56, keeps her can-do attitude at all times, she says, despite being diagnosed in 2000 with non-Hodgkins bone cancer, an incurable form of the disease. She stays busy in her part-time role as Prime Time program director, mother of an 11-year-old boy, minister of missions at Christ United Methodist Mission and cancer patient. She visits University of Florida Cancer Center at Shands Hospital every three to six months for treatment.

“I call it ‘remission’ because I am doing fine with it — even though they tell me there’s no cure,” Kelly said.

Thirty-four elementary-aged children receive the guidance and attention they need to succeed in school at the Prime Time after-school program at Christ United Methodist Mission in Gainesville. Photo by Brandy Wilson. Photo #07-0549. Web photo only.

Meanwhile, about 34 elementary-aged children depend on her leadership at Prime Time to help them face their own challenges. All of the students in the program, which is housed at Christ United Methodist Mission, have been identified as “at-risk” for school failure, according to Ted Wilson, a member of the program’s board of directors. The group of students is mostly first through fifth graders and four kindergartners. Their teachers, principals and parents decide whether or not they belong in the program.

“(It’s) taking those children who come from very troubled backgrounds and teaching them that they can come in and sit down and do their homework,” Wilson said.

The program runs from about 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday during the school year. A driver picks up the students from their nearby schools and takes them to the church. The afternoon includes a hot meal shortly after they arrive at the church, homework time, educational computer games, outside playtime and enrichment activities.

“It’s really great for the parents. They are working poor, and that takes care of day care and (the children) are not out on the streets,” Wilson said.

But the students reap the biggest benefits when they begin to find academic success, Kelly said. She shares the story of a second-grader who began the school year as a repeat first-grader, but was moved up to second grade because of the guidance he received in the program.

“Nobody realized what was going on with this child; no one really showed that they care enough to inspire him that he should (succeed),” Kelly said. “If you would see that young man read now, it would amaze you.”

Gainesville resident Barbara Wallace, who is legal guardian to her fourth-grade niece, Jasmine Smith, believes Jasmine’s success in school comes from attending Prime Time.

“It’s really helped benefit Jasmine,” Wallace said. “When they are there, it’s not just playtime for them. It’s actually a learning experience for the kids. It gives them the opportunity to learn and grow in other things that they would not learn in another after-school program.”

Wallace credits Kelly for making the program high-quality, after-school care.

“Miss Kelly is so determined that her children are not (going to) fail,” Wallace said. “She goes to the teachers and finds out what the kids’ weakest points are, and she works with them.”

Kelly’s philosophy involves looking at all aspects of each child’s development. She even has parental permission to attend the children’s parent-teacher conferences at school.

“You’ve got to get to the root of the problem … it happens in the elementary school … when the child first comes,” Kelly said. “I try to take the whole child — the parent, the child, the school —and look at the learning environment.”

Homework tutoring is just one of the many ways volunteers give the elementary-aged children who participate in the Prime Time after-school program at Christ United Methodist Mission in Gainesville the one-on-one attention they need to improve at school. Photo by Brandy Wilson. Photo #07-0550. Web photo only.

Kelly gets her inspiration to persevere with these children from her adoptive mother, Inez Diggs, who took Kelly under her wing shortly after Kelly was born. Kelly’s biological mother and twin sister died the day she was born.

“A lady took me in, and I have a love for wanting to help another child that needs that,” Kelly said. “I thank God for putting somebody in my life that took care of that for me. I wanted to give back to some child in that way. I’ve been doing it for 35 years, working with children.”

Kelly’s efforts make her invaluable to the program, Wilson said.

“She has a presence about her that if she walked into a room full of people, her presence would be felt immediately, and I think that’s part of what makes her so effective with the children,” he said.

Financial support for the Prime Time program comes from several sources. Christ United Methodist Mission provides the space for the program, while about 50 percent of the total monetary contributions come from nearby United Methodist churches. Volunteers raise the remainder of the money from the community and other churches. Tuition for each child — at no cost to the family — runs about $1,500 per year.

“We have enlisted several good United Methodists who are willing to contribute $1,500,” Wilson said.

Wilson, a member of First United Methodist Church in Alachua, also said there is always a need for volunteers who can help the children with their homework.

“The one thing you could do to help these programs is volunteer, particularly the retired community,” Wilson said. “After all, it’s our time, our talents, our gifts and our service.”
Wallace said the program has been so helpful to her family she is disappointed Jasmine only has one more year to go before she is too old to attend.

“I would love to see this program continue for the (older) kids,” Wallace said.

Meanwhile, caring for the needs of children of all ages is at the forefront of the upcoming Children’s Week in Tallahassee, set for March 25 through April 1. Children’s Week is sponsored by the state and statewide religious organizations, including the Florida Conference, and nonprofit and children’s advocacy groups. A full listing of Children’s Week events is available at

The Prime Time program has been in existence since 1997. Kelly has served as director for the past three years. More information about the program is available by contacting Wilson at 352-562-3939.


This article relates to Outreach and Children’s Ministries.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.

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