Cooperative Ministries: a contemporary mustard seed


UMCM partners with food banks throughout the Bay area, including this one in Tampa Bay. Photo: UMCM Suncoast


Jesus used the parable of the mustard seed to show how, from humble beginnings, something much larger can grow. It was a perfect story for a time when He was trying to sow the seeds of growth for a new faith.

It also is a blueprint that remains valid for dealing with today’s problems.

Planted in 1975, United Methodist Cooperative Ministries in St. Petersburg (UMCM), was an attempt to address the needs of the local community.
 
Students at the UMCM Center for Early Learning St. Mark’s Campus of Anona Multi-Site Church in St. Petersburg created this leaf collage. Photo: UMCM Suncoast

It has since grown into a five-county organization serving more than 15,000 people each year, working with approximately 20 local churches, government agencies and other non-profit groups to support early learning programs, housing support, literacy and to combat hunger.

Pamela Qualls started at UMCM in 2008, overseeing volunteers and special projects, moving up to executive director in 2009. She is now the CEO.

“At that point (the board of directors) wanted to look into the things we had developed and had expertise in and multiply those across our community,” Qualls said.

The budget has grown from $700,000 in 2009 to $5 million today, and a staff of 85 serves Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

UMCM focuses on early childhood education, working with the children of immigrants who often don’t speak English and didn’t attend pre-school. It also helps parents learn to navigate the American school system. Nearly 1,000 children have gone through the program.

Jack Stephenson, senior minister of the Anona multi-site United Methodist Church in Largo, has seen the work up close. Anona hosts the UMCM program for about 80 youngsters on its St. Mark’s campus.

“Pam is doing a phenomenal program with at-risk children, moving their success rate by third grade from 60 percent to better than 90 percent by getting special trauma-trained teachers to work with kids whose parents may be incarcerated, homeless or drug addicted and those sorts of issues,” Stephenson said.
 
UMCM also provides comprehensive citizen classes, a program that grew from two or three people a year to now serve 150. Above, a graduate of the class with her diploma after passing the citizenship exam at St. Petersburg College Clearwater Campus. Photo: UMCM Suncoast

An experimental church featuring new ways of worship and a cutting-edge preschool, Stephenson said he and his staff focus on innovative ways to present the Methodist Church. He has found a kindred spirit in Qualls.

The partnership is making a difference.

“Pam has a real heart for parents and kids that are struggling. The program has given new hope to children,” Stephenson said. “I believe in what she is doing with all my heart.”

A career musician who also worked at companies like IBM during college, Qualls’ eyes were opened when she became involved in her own children’s education.

“As I watched my kids go through school, I started to see that some of their fellow students didn’t have the same opportunities my kids had,” she said.

Her work has focused on opening those doors for children.

“I’ve always loved education, and I want other people to have those opportunities,” Qualls said. “When we look at the housing and food, those are support systems for those people.

“So, if you have someone who’s going through one of our programs, and suddenly they're about to become homeless, they're not going to be able to continue. By getting expertise in housing and expertise in emergency food services, we've been able to provide support to all of our students to make sure that they stay on track.”

Skycrest United Methodist has been hosting a family literacy program twice a week since September. Church volunteers help with childcare and English tutoring.

“The elementary-age kids are getting homework help while also getting help with their English skills,” Pastor Emily Hotho said. “Then there's a part at the end (of each session) where the parents and the children are together, and they're learning things about American culture that might help them like how to use the library or the bus system and things like that.”

The congregation has welcomed the program.

“I like having a way to get our people hands-on involved in serving the community,” Hotho said. “We've got a lot of non-English speakers right here in the neighborhood of our church, and this is a great way to reach out.”

For more information on UMCM, call (727) 754-3913 or visit www.umcmsuncoast.org.

—Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in Tampa.
 

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