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Churches make children priority

Churches make children priority

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches make children priority

March 22, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0641}

NOTE: See also related stories — “Conference Table participants say children should be top priority” {0635} and “United Methodists urged to put weight behind support of children” {0634} under More Headlines on the e-Review home page at:
An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

The United Methodist Church has a rich history of ministry to children around the world. According to the church’s Social Principles, “Children have the right to food, shelter, clothing, health care and emotional well-being.”

Even as Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker and other religious leaders participate in a press conference at the state capitol March 27 to encourage political leaders and Floridians to ensure a high quality of life for children, churches around the state are already having a positive impact on children in their communities.

Not another statistic

Lindsay Ritenbaugh said First United Methodist Church of Lakeland began its Sandwich Club outreach nearly 20 years ago as a weekly opportunity for children to receive a free sandwich and fellowship on Wednesday afternoons.

Neighborhood Ministries volunteers, children and youth lead worship at a weekly Wednesday night dinner at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. Photo #07-0547.

“Within nine years, nearly 500 youth and children had experienced the program,” the longtime church member said.

With the success of the Sandwich Club, a new ministry called the Clubhouse was launched as a five-day-a-week, after-school ministry for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, offering tutoring, spiritual guidance and “unconditional love,” according to Ritenbaugh.

“The Clubhouse is open … during those critical hours when most youth succumb to peer pressure and turn to drugs, sex and violence,” Ritenbaugh said. “This program provides a safe-haven for these would-be troubled students.”

In 2001 the church joined forces with neighboring St. Mark, Trinity and Wahneta United Methodist churches to reach their respective communities, and in 2002 Kelly Dial joined the church staff as full-time director of Neighborhood Ministries.

Seeing a need to deal with the needs of middle and high school youth, Dial and her team of volunteers started Club Christ for sixth- through 12th-graders. Many of the children who had participated in Clubhouse were entering middle and high school, and church staff and members feared that without the daily guidance, direction and routine of going to the church after school, the youth might be tempted to engage in less positive activities during years that are already challenging.

Not content to meet needs only during the school year, the church expanded the program through the summer. Corey Jones, who works as associate director of Neighborhood Ministries and oversees Clubhouse and Club Christ, helped launch Outreach Florida, an all-day summer program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The children enjoy a full day of Christ-centered activities like Vacation Bible School, a camp experience at the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp in Fruitland Park, Fitness Camp at the church and a variety of field trips. The children may also participate in the federally subsidized lunch program, which ensures each child receives a healthy meal and snack during the summer months.

Sixty children have participated in the program’s nine weeks of curriculum during the past two summers.

Today, Neighborhood Ministries continues to provide tutoring, daily snacks, weekly chapel services, and positive reinforcement and support from mentors to children and youth in the Lakeland area. Future plans include establishing a Neighborhood Ministries College Fund for financially disadvantaged youth and a comprehensive recreational sports league. The team also hopes to increase awareness of and participation in PEACE (Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment) and provide sex education for Club Christ youth and parents.

Financial support for the ministry comes from First United Methodist Church members.

Dial becomes emotional when she considers the impact the ministry has had on local children.

“It never gets old,” she said. “Every graduation I attend, every family reunited and healed in counseling, every child that passes their FCAT, every college student who decides to become a full-time Christian servant washes over me like a great triumph and victory. With God, we did it. We were able to make a difference and keep a child from becoming another statistic. At those moments, you’ll usually see me teary-eyed and wondering how God could use someone like me. I feel humbled.”

Clothes, trips and spaghetti dinners

What started out as a Bible study and meal program at Webster United Methodist Church in Webster soon turned into a blessing to neighborhood schools.

The Rev. Haig Medzarentz and church members decided to turn the Bible study into an outreach program. She said fund-raising spaghetti dinners were introduced and “caught on fire.”
Since 2004 the dinners have raised more than $3,000 for area school children, buying shoes, jackets and personal items.

“Families who could not afford clothing, new or otherwise, have benefited,” Medzarentz said. “Children who could not pay for insurance for school field trips were able to go on them,”

The church also holds silent auctions at Christmas that have raised more than $1,200 to benefit children at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home.

The Sumter County School Board honored the church for its “service to the schools and community.”

Said Medzarentz: “We even beat out Wal-Mart.”

Answering the call, planting the seeds

First United Methodist Church of Coral Springs’ Sandwich Club was born in 1997 with the late Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson’s focus on children and poverty.

“The concept at that time was to provide an after-school program in a caring, safe environment for neighborhood kindergarten through fifth-graders,” church member Pat Beers said. “The program includes a light meal, crafts, music and Bible lesson. We feel if we touch one life it has been successful.”

The church also organized an outreach to children at nearby Hunt Elementary School. Church member Marsha Nevils said members began collecting uniforms and school supplies for the school last summer. By the time school started they had provided supplies and uniforms to more than 400 students.

“I feel every ministry has an effect on the church,” Beers said. “It has made us more aware of the people who live in the area surrounding our building. We are not a neighborhood church so this is helping to make strides in this situation. We are a community church, incorporating people from within the area and the perimeter communities.”

Nevils said volunteers also read with children every Tuesday and groups sponsor children for hot lunches and sports programs.

First United Methodist Church of Zephyrhills celebrated Children's Week by hanging cut-outs of the hands of children who participate in the church's ministries. Other churches also devoted a worship service to children and their needs. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of Zephyrhills. Photo #07-0548.

“We supplied 23 families in the school with Thanksgiving baskets,” said added. “We gave over 100 gifts and gift cards for Christmas. We are now collecting uniforms and school supplies for the rest of the year.”

Beers said the church is only doing what God has called it to do.

“We were instructed by Jesus to heal the sick, feed the hungry, etc.,” she said. “He said let the children come to me, and we are bringing these children into the love and fellowship of the church body. We feel each and every child is important. We plant seeds and let God do the rest.”

The press conference Whitaker is attending is part of the annual Children’s Week activities in Tallahassee. Children’s Week is sponsored by the state and statewide religious organizations, including the Florida Conference, and nonprofit and children’s advocacy groups. It runs this year from March 25 to April 1. A full listing of Children’s Week events is available at


This article relates to Outreach and Children’s Ministries.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.