The backpacks have been unpacked, pencils sharpened and notebooks opened. As children return to school this season, churches throughout the conference have stepped up to make sure they have what they need to start the academic year.
But what about the teachers? Some churches have decided to shower them with supplies and encouragement as well.
Belleview UMC in central Florida is located directly across the street from Belleview Elementary School. For years, the church had an informal relationship with the school that included hosting a fifth-grade graduation ceremony and helping parents in need with food donations. In 2009, the partnership became more official when the church was paired with the school through the Marion County Public Education Foundation, which facilitates specific goals and activities between schools and their partners.
“Through the partnership, we’re committed to giving the school $3,000 a year,” says Belleview’s pastor, Rev. Kris Schonewolf. “We meet with the principal at least once a year, and she lets us know how the money is being used. We leave it up to her because she knows where the money is most needed.”
When teachers reported back to school Aug. 17, they found breakfast goodies provided by the church waiting for them each morning of the week. In addition, Belleview UMC hosts two luncheons a year for teachers, the first one scheduled in November.
“We provide behind-the-scenes support,” says Cindy Brodie, volunteer education director at Belleview UMC. “Church members volunteer to read to students or become an extra set of hands when teachers need help with a project. We also have a church member who sits on the school advisory committee.”
When the art teacher gives Brodie a quarterly list of needed art supplies, the congregation eagerly fills a bin at the church. Volunteer forms are kept in the church hallway so that members can sign up when teachers have requests for helpers, such as on field trip days.
Schonewolf, who came to Belleview UMC in July, says the church hopes to do even more for the school in the coming year.
“I feel there is still more we can do to maximize this partnership,” she says. “We want teachers to know we are here for them.”
About a two-hour drive to the northeast is Southside UMC, Jacksonville, which has a partnership with Hendricks Avenue Elementary School. Nicknamed HAPI, for Hendricks Avenue Partnership Initiative, the school-church relationship has evolved into a community-based initiative that supports teachers and parents as well as students.
“Duval County Public Schools approached us because we are only a block away from the school,” says Angie Cosper, children’s ministries director at Southside UMC.
“Although a majority of kids are upper middle class, there is a huge disparity, with 20 [percent] to 30 percent of the students and their families in need. The church’s goal with this partnership has been to bridge that disparity.”
Some of those students’ families live in low-cost hotels along a nearby highway because they are homeless. Nearly 30 percent of the students get government-subsidized lunches.
“Many of these families live on the edge,” Cosper says. “A lot of our church members have children in that school, and they were shocked to hear how many other students were in need.”
HAPI recognizes that teachers are in a position to see when a student needs help, whether it is with tutoring or getting a new pair of shoes or enough food.
“What HAPI has done is give resources to help every teacher help students,” explains Cosper. “The teacher comes to us and we make it happen. It takes a tremendous weight off the teacher’s shoulders to know we are here.”
Every teacher also has someone in the church praying for him or her. Prayer partners pray about specific things if a teacher asks.
Many church members, especially those who are retired teachers themselves, volunteer in Hendricks Avenue Elementary classrooms. In addition, the Southside UMC youth group has a popular tutoring program for the elementary students on Wednesday afternoons. Middle school students read to the younger children, while the older youths help fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders with adding fractions or checking homework.
“We thought others would volunteer, but it’s turned into a very popular program for our youth group with about 15 students a week participating,” Cosper says. “It’s a way for our own youth to be involved and show Christ’s love through helping others.”
Not all church-and-school teams are formal but rather about being a good neighbor. Take First UMC, Sebring, for instance.
“Sebring Middle School is right across the street, and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to adopt them and do what we can,” says Katy Fassler, children’s ministry director at the church.
For the second consecutive year, First UMC hosted an appreciation luncheon for teachers as they prepared for classes. About 35 Sebring Middle School teachers attended the Aug. 17 event.
Alison Juliano, wife of First UMC’s pastor, Rev. David Juliano, arranged school supplies donated by churchgoers to resemble tiered cakes that served as table centerpieces. After the luncheon, teachers could dismantle the centerpieces and take what they needed.
Fassler says church members also encouraged teachers to let them know of other supplies they need throughout the school year.
“We feel extremely privileged to be neighbors and partners with Sebring Middle School.”
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.