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Learning center offers graceful transitions to better lives

Learning center offers graceful transitions to better lives

Volunteer with child at Grace Place
Grace Place volunteer Pat Schlegel comforts 18-month-old Mario during naptime in the toddler room. Photo by Susan Green.

GOLDEN GATE CITY -- You could say it’s a place for second chances, but some might argue that many who find their way there never had a chance before.

Maybe it’s safer to say that the former Golden Gate UMC near Naples is living up to its old name by offering a gateway to a golden future, while also stepping up to its new moniker: Grace Place.

Take Daisy Calderon, who showed up at the campus during its early years, seeking to improve her communication skills so she could help her autistic son thrive in a public elementary school environment.

“I spoke nothing of English,” she said, recalling her first year of attending classes and volunteering at the center.  “I was here every day, Monday through Friday.”

Her younger son learned to read and write in English. So did mom. Today she has been on staff at Grace Place for five years.

“I always say this is my home,” Calderon said. “I’m so proud of myself because I understand 99 percent [of what English speakers say] and I’ve got a lot of friends.” 

Grace Place Bright Beginnings
Mothers attend Grace Place classes with kids in tow to improve their language skills and learn to teach their offspring at home. Photo by Susan Green.

She is one of many whose lives have been transformed since Rev. Stephanie Munz Campbell, an ordained UMC deacon and the daughter of educators, started the program in 2003 as a church outreach ministry, with “60 kids we pulled off the crosswalk” of the local elementary school.

“That’s how we recruited the first batch of kids,” she said.

Nine years later, some of those kids are poised to attend college. The number of community members receiving services at Grace Place each week has skyrocketed to 800.

A few years ago, Grace Place incorporated into a nonprofit organization supported largely by local churches of various denominations, as well as United Way. In 2010, the organization bought the campus for $1.1 million and pumped another $700,000 into renovations.

On the horizon is Phase 2, a $2.4 million plan to build classrooms to replace portable units and offer space for a media center and offices. The center has collected about $400,000 toward that goal, Campbell said.

Campbell grew up in Collier County and has seen major shifts in the community over the past four decades. She and John Lawson, a longtime Grace Place volunteer who attends a local Presbyterian church, said Golden Gate’s proximity to both the farm community of Immokalee and the luxury homes of Naples has shaped it into a neighborhood of working people struggling to find a toehold in a new world. 

Mom sitting in Grace Place class
 A Bright Beginnings class at Grace Place offers instruction to mothers in Spanish and English. Photo by Susan Green.

“Immokalee is kind of the Ellis Island of Florida,” Lawson said. “Immigrants from all over come through there.”  

Over time, families with roots in Mexico, South America, Haiti or other islands have migrated to Golden Gate City, a former retirement haven of modest homes with affordable prices that’s a bus ride away from the bevy of service jobs in Naples.

Campbell was first appointed as an outreach minister in 2003, when Grace Place was a Hispanic mission church.

“Nobody was doing our sort of service program or outreach in this area,” she recalled.

By late 2003, when the mission closed, the outreach program already had a strong following.  Five local UM churches kept it going, with support from the Florida Conference. Campbell stayed on as executive director. 

Today, it costs about $950,000 a year to keep Grace Place going, and 27 local churches of different denominations support the program. Campbell would like to see the support base branch out across the state. 

Rev. Stephanie Munz Campbell
 Rev. Stephanie Campbell

The daughter of a former school superintendent, Campbell is a big believer in education, not only for the young generation, but for parents, particularly in her targeted outreach.

“Not only does this population have poverty and language [English] issues, but 33 percent of the parents are illiterate in their home language,” Campbell said.

That means the problems that many parents face in helping children with homework are compounded by learning deficits largely unknown in the U.S.

“When a child comes home with a project in ecology, that’s like talking about Mars,” Campbell said.

Thus, Grace Place offers classes for mothers and children together and special literacy events for the whole family.

In the Bright Beginnings program, mothers of infants and toddlers cluster around experienced teachers one morning a week, often with children in strollers beside them, for the entire school year. Workbooks and journals are piled on the tables beside them. 

Moms and kids sing educational song at Grace Place
 Parents and preschoolers perform the song "Wheels on the Bus" to reinforce language skills during a Mom and Tot class at Grace Place. Photo by Susan Green.

“It focuses on teaching the mom to be the child’s first teacher,” Campbell said of the program. “If she changes what they do at home 24-7, we make some real progress.” 

For parents of preschoolers, instructors help parents read picture books to their children, chant “Teddy Bear,Teddy Bear” and sing songs like “Wheels on the Bus” that reinforce language skills.
Grace Place also offers day care and after-school programs, classes for pre-kindergarten through third grade and tutoring in  public schools for higher grades.To address other life skills needed for success, the center offers citizenship and financial literacy classes.  In 2008, Grace Place added a food pantry to help ease parents’ struggles to feed their families.

For Campbell, the biggest rewards are the individual success stories. She remembers a boy named Keith who was failing the third grade when he came to Grace Place.

“For that little third-grader, his life was over,” Campbell said. After he spent a few months in the program, she got a phone call. 

Class at Grace Place
Teacher Tricia MacKay, center, encourages 3- and 4-year-olds to read board books at Grace Place. Photo by Susan Green.

“He said, ‘Pastor Stephanie, they tested me again, and I’m in the fourth grade.’ That changed his trajectory.”

The boy went on to become a gifted musician who’s applying to college and has scholarship opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the program, however, is the exchange among staff, volunteers and beneficiaries, Campbell said.

“How do you make friends across language and cultural differences? And the biggest barrier – economic?

“It doesn’t really happen. But here it does.”

Lawson thinks the center is aptly named.

“This is a place of grace where people can come and be connected to the community and be embraced,” he said. “God is always here.”

Susan Green is editor of Florida Conference Connection.