Orlando students, professionals join forces for at-risk kids

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Orlando students, professionals join forces for at-risk kids

Nov. 21, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0768}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

ORLANDO — Natalie Graham is a seventh-grader whose brilliant smile and sparkling eyes tell you how happy she is even before she utters a single word.

“I graduated from this program two years ago,” she said one Saturday morning. “It helped me so much. I learned so many things. I did better in school.”

Damon Streeter receives tutoring from mentor Dinam Bigny through the Outreach Love program at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #07-0708.

A huge grin spreads across young Damon Streeter’s face as his tutor, Dinam Bigny, walks over. Streeter reaches up and gives Bigny an enthusiastic high-five. He does the same when introduced to his new tutor, Chuck Diguardo. Streeter wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
Amarii Jones says the Saturday morning tutoring has helped him get two A’s and one B on his last report card. “Plus, I love going on field trips and camping. We even went to Sea World,” he said.
The students and tutors gather every Saturday morning on the second floor at First United Methodist Church of Orlando for a program called Outreach Love. They eat breakfast, then join hands and make a circle. One-by-one they share something they are thankful for and as a group recite a creed confessing their desire to learn. They then break off into pairs and trios and get to work.
Outreach Love is in its 11th year of service to at-risk kids in Orlando. It was founded by Beverly Gawlik of St. James Cathedral Catholic Church in partnership with Ferncreek Elementary School in Orlando. Ferncreek draws its students from the Paramore district, an area known for its high crime rate, and homeless shelters in the downtown Orlando area.

With every demographic excuse for failure, Ferncreek is an “A” school, and Outreach Love is considered a part of that success.
Outreach Love is a faith-based, non-denominational, all-volunteer effort that does not proselytize students, though the volunteers do pray every week with the students and ask them to give thanks to God.
About five years ago Outreach Love outgrew the available space at St. James Cathedral Catholic Church and started to look for a new location. First United Methodist Church stepped forward to offer its facilities, administrative support and the use of its bus.

“Our experience with FUMC has been a very positive one,” Outreach Love Director Don Madden said. “A television commercial (Igniting Ministry-aired) a few years ago declared that the doors of The Methodist Church were open to all. I can absolutely attest that FUMC has been a welcoming environment for our ministry.”
Agatha Alvarez teaches at Ferncreek Elementary School and refers children in need of tutoring to the program. “The school has a high turnover rate as kids come and go, and yet the Outreach Love tutoring program has a high retention rate,” she said. “The kids want to come and look forward to it each Saturday.”

About 25 to 30 children participate each year. In the past eleven years, 250 to 300 have been helped.
Madden says the program is reaching children who are “in survival mode.” “Their parents can’t pay their electric bills. They lose their homes. These kids move two to three times a year because of poverty,” he said. “Paramore is a high-crime, high-poverty area.
“Ours is hands-on Christianity. The geometry of human relations cannot completely describe the impact of one life upon another.”

That impact goes beyond helping meet educational needs.

“If there is no food in the home we pass the hat and go buy groceries,” Madden said. “I remember one year when two young girls showed up wearing dirty T-shirts as dresses. Our UCF (University of Central Florida) tutors went back to the dorm and got their friends to collect hand-me-down clothes from their younger sisters. The following week, after tutoring, the tutors held a fashion show, with the two girls trying on four to five new outfits each. The glow on the faces of the girls was reflected on the faces of the tutors. It was a good day.”

Each child is assigned two volunteer tutors who alternate Saturdays. They come from all walks of life — from UCF and Rollins College students to attorneys. A number of members from the Association of Young Urban Professionals volunteer their time and talents to the program. Tutors also come from First United Methodist Church, St. James Cathedral Catholic Church, University Congregational Church and many other Orlando churches.

Along with time spent doing schoolwork, tutors and students play games, build relationships and learn communication skills at the Outreach Love Saturday morning tutoring program at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #07-0709.

Madden sees something special in this cooperative effort. “What we can learn is that while each of us walks our Christian life according to the tenets of our own religion, we can come together to do the work of the Lord among those most in need in our community,” he said.
Roz Mullen, a member of First United Methodist Church, says she is proud of the way so many people have caught the vision.

“Everything we have here has been donated,” she said. “Barnes & Noble donated 500 books. We have a computer lab with networked computers and desks and chairs that have all been donated. We have an arts and crafts room filled with supplies — First United Methodist Church donated the use of these classrooms. We have had a lot of support from some pretty wonderful people.”
Though he is dressed in “work” clothes for a day of community service, the Rev. Gary Spencer, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, said he’s glad to take the time to lead people to the second floor rooms where the tutoring takes place. “We are really happy to be a part of this ministry to children,” he said.
Madden adds: “If the Lord looked down from heaven and asked us to be one of His instruments on earth, where do you think he would send us? There are many programs where you can write a check and feel good about yourself without ever having to see the face of the person you are trying to help. Our program is one of those rare opportunities for Christians to meet and interact with people in need on a very real human basis. Why wouldn’t any church want to use an opportunity like this to reach out to the community?”
First United Methodist Church of Orlando is located at 142 East Jackson Street, Orlando, 32801. More information about Outreach Love is available by contacting Madden at 1218 Salerno Court, Orlando, FL 32806 or 407-619-0693.


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla.

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