Sometimes, the best way a church can make inroads in its community is to ask a simple question: What do you really need?
Such was the case for University Carillon United Methodist Church in Orlando, and it led to fulfillment on several levels.
Executive Pastor Chris Akers, speaking with the principal of nearby Bonneville Elementary School, asked just that question about two years ago. Already, the church had set up a clothes closet for needy students at the Title 1 school, which is mostly made up of poor Hispanic children.
But more was needed.
|Chris Akers, executive pastor of University Carillon United Methodist Church in Orlando, poses with his two reading buddies. The church teamed up with a nearby elementary school which serves mostly poor children. The volunteer help has been instrumental in boosting the school from a C rating by the state to an A rating. —Photo courtesy University Carillon UMC|
“She told me she needed reading buddies, about 100,” Akers recalled. “I promised her 25, at least half males,” as she had requested.
Fast forward to 2018, and the church was named Business Partner of the Year by the Florida Department of Education Commissioner's Business Recognition Awards. It was recognized recently by Orange County Public Schools for the award, and Akers will travel to Tallahassee to collect the state honor.
And Bonneville has risen from a C-rated school by state standards to an A rating, at least partly resulting from advances students made using those reading buddies.
An A rating for a Title 1 school, where most children receive free or reduced lunches, is an exceptional achievement, Akers said.
“Our relationship with Bonneville Elementary started about 10 years ago when a lady in our church, Mim Greaves, heard of a need in the school,” Akers said. “She had heard teachers have to pay for things out of their pockets, basic clothing and supplies.
“It was a cold winter day when she felt the nudge to pull in and inquire at the front if they needed anything. The person at the front said, ‘we had four kids show up to school in sandals and we’re trying to get them some shoes.’ She went out and bought four pairs of shoes.”
In a short time, the clothes shelf turned in to a clothes closet, then into a clothes room stocked with University Carillon UMC volunteers.
Now, there are 43 reading buddies and Akers is working to increase that number significantly.
“The need is great,” he said.
Things evolved in summer 2016, Akers said. “We had just finished a back to school bash and I asked the principal, ‘What else do you need? What are the real needs?’
“She said there were a number of students she has to keep weekly checks on their progress because they are under-performing in English and reading. Said she could use reading buddies, people who could read with the kids. She said she could use 100.
“We had about 30 people that would come in and read with one or two kids; and then at the end of the school year, they ended up moving from a C school to an A school. That was a big deal for them.”
Akers said the school attributes part of its recent success to the reading buddy program.
“Plus,” he said, “you get kids who are clothed properly, and they don’t mind coming to school so much.”
—Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.