Orlando pastor, church get in the game for area schools

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Orlando pastor, church get in the game for area schools 

July 24, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0889}

An e-Review Feature
By Mary Lee Downey**

The theme for this year’s Orlando Magic playoff games was “blue and white ignite,” and it brought thousands out to cheer on the big stars of the NBA and see who would clinch the championship in the final game.

The Rev. Jose Nieves receives an award for being Osceola School District’s Outstanding Adult Volunteer of the Year. Photo courtesy of Jose Nieves. Photo #08-0945. For longer description see photo gallery.

While many sat in packed stadiums and many more watched at home, there was another team out on the court that wasn’t as widely noticed. It was part of a local YMCA basketball league, and the big star was the Rev. Jose Nieves, Osceola School District’s Outstanding Adult Volunteer of the Year.
Nieves serves as associate pastor at Peace United Methodist Church in Orlando and leads Casa De Paz, a Hispanic congre-
gation at Peace. He and members of Casa De Paz wanted to reach out to the Central Florida community, so they brainstormed ways to volunteer. They decided to work with area schools in Osceola and Orange counties.

Nieves, a former youth pastor and high school basketball team chaplain, sent e-mails to area schools, mostly those serving bilingual communities, and offered the church’s services.

“Out of the five e-mails, four different schools answered back,” Nieves said. “We got appointments with them and sat with the principals and said ‘How can we serve you?’ ”

Stacy Burdette, principal at Cypress Elementary School in Osceola County, met with Nieves to discuss options for an outreach program. After Burdette learned of Nieves’ basketball history, the two decided Nieves would start a basketball club during the school’s Wednesday afternoon club time. The team would meet every week at the school and play on a league at the local YMCA.

Nathan Minium, a former character education teacher, was also thinking about starting a basketball program, but only with fifth-graders. When Nieves offered to teach the fourth-graders and then work with the fifth-graders, Minium couldn’t have been more pleased.

“Here’s a guy that wanted to get involved in any way, wanting to help out the school and community … I couldn’t do it all. It was neat for the school that he could take on fourth grade and then he stayed for fifth grade to assist me,” Minium said.

Not just basketball

Nieves, Minium and Burdette sat down together and developed a plan for the program. They wanted to reach students who needed help — either with school or family or just in need of a friend.

“We basically sent word out to the teachers … give us your knuckleheads, your very difficult kids, we would love to have them in this program,” Nieves said.

The Rev. Jose Nieves coaches students at Cypress Elementary School in Osceola County. Photo courtesy of Jose Nieves. Photo #08-0946. For longer description see photo gallery.

And teachers responded, recommending about 30 students they thought would benefit from the program. By the end of the basketball year Nieves and Minium said they noticed a difference in the children.

“It went really good, and we saw kids that wouldn’t have made the year without being influenced by the powerful thing of playing basketball … and it changed them,” Nieves said.

Minium remembers one student who really responded to the program. “Just looking at him, at first he was quiet, easy-going, but timid. But because of Pastor Jose he became more outspoken, confident, and even his basketball skills developed through his experience,” Minium said.

At the beginning of the year the students set goals they wanted to accomplish, such as making better grades or buying a bicycle. Nieves said he helped the kids see they had to work to accomplish those goals — that goals just don’t happen — and taught them how to achieve them.  

“Are you going to mow the lawn or wash your neighbor’s car?” he asked the students. “How are you going to accomplish this?”

Nieves also monitored the students’ progress, meeting frequently with them to help them follow up on their goals.

“We met at lunch in different groups, and we would go back to that goal sheet,” Nieves said. 

To play on the basketball team the students had to sign a contract stating their playing time was attached to their goal sheets.

“When a kid doesn’t follow their goal sheet or does not live up to the commitment, then they lose time from the basketball game, and they love to play. So that’s a very powerful motivator for them,” Nieves said.

A team effort

The basketball team is just one of the outreach programs Nieves and Casa De Paz are coordinating with local elementary schools. The church has given hundreds of backpacks to needy children, donated meals to families at Thanksgiving, sponsored community events and even donated a turkey for the annual turkey trot.

The Rev. Jose Nieves and Stacy Burdette (left), principal at Cypress Elementary School in Osceola County, pose with students who participate in the basketball program the pastor and principal started at the school. Photo courtesy of Jose Nieves. Photo #08-0947. For longer description see photo gallery.

Nieves is quick to point out that many people have been involved in the outreach ministries and he doesn’t deserve all the recognition for winning Osceola School District’s Volunteer of the Year.  

“It is not really just me. I see it as an honor for the team, and it’s really the team of Casa De Paz that worked extremely hard to make this a reality,” he said. “My name may be on the plaque, but when you read the list of the things they are giving me the award for, none of that would have been possible without the team that I was working with at Casa De Paz.”

Burdette believes Nieves is being a little modest when it comes to how much he has done for the schools.

“We are happy to have the community help with the clubs, but Coach Nieves took it so much further,” she said. “We never thought this would happen for our kids.”

Nieves believes a pastor receiving the Volunteer of the Year award can help church members see the type of relationship the church can have with schools and the community.

“I just see it as a natural,” he said. “We both love kids, we both want the best for them, and we want to build the Kingdom of God, and that has to include the schools in one way or another.”

Nieves says he knows this type of outreach can work in any community.

“There are schools that are desperate for help, and if you took the time to look around then you can make an enormous difference in those schools,” he said.

It is about “bringing justice … giving back to the people what God intends them to have,” he adds.

“To me it’s a dream,” he said. “This has been a taste of what God could do when churches and schools work together — when God is the one who leads and open doors.”

Nieves said it’s also a “testimony of God and school.”

“We used to think that God was kicked out of school sometime in the 1960s, but in reality,” he says, “I really see God working in schools, sitting there waiting for us to show up.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Downey is a freelance writer based in Kissimmee, Fla., and director of programming and evangelism at First United Methodist Church, Kissimmee.

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