A lot may dream when you dare to happen.
That inverted phrase could be the motto for Tampa-based Cornerstone Family Ministries.
Cornerstone is an outreach ministry of the Florida Conference and a National Missions Institution of United Methodist Women.
The organization is motivated by reverence for the past, goals for the present and dreams for the future of children living at-risk or unchurched.
|Cornerstone is led by executive director Cathy Stone, center, Cindy Sisco, president of the Board of Directors, right, and Jeanette Hordge-Smith, left, director of community involvement.|
Cornerstone was founded by the foremothers of The United Methodist Church. Executive Director Cathy Stone traces the organization's lineage to 1892, six years after the first cigar factory opened in Tampa and seven decades before segregation was declared illegal in the United States.
"That was a time when the settlement movement started moving across the country within The United Methodist Church, and so there was a lot of interest in the Tampa Bay area because of the immigrants who were coming through here," Stone said.
Cornerstone dared to happen more than a century ago so that many may dream.
Today, Cornerstone provides accredited early childhood instruction to nearly 100 children at the Rosa Valdez Center & Lab School in Tampa.
The organization's impact on children goes well beyond the classroom. Cornerstone sponsors a network of 177 mostly small childcare centers in five counties—Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Manatee (during the 2018-19 school year).
Children receive breakfast, lunch and a snack through a program run by the Florida Department of Health. Cornerstone doesn't prepare or deliver the food. It trains the center directors, provides technical assistance and follows up.
More than $6.2 million was reimbursed to these privately-owned childcare providers during the 2017-18 fiscal year, allowing nearly 20,000 children to receive almost 5.5 million nutritious meals.
About 75 percent of the children live at or below the poverty line.
|Cornerstone preschoolers at play on Monday, Aug. 12, the first day of school.|
There is a small, but important, religious component. Four times a year (usually religious holidays) nearby churches provide children weekend care packages that include invitations for their families to drop in on Sunday.
"The majority of what we do is out in the field," Stone said. "There is a great potential for United Methodist churches to come around those children and their families (in the five counties) and to actually invite them ... to come be a part of their church."
A little outreach can bear fruit. When families are invited to local churches through the 150 childcare centers, the children may help grow the Methodist church when they are older.
"It's a huge opportunity," she said. "There are 20,000 children, and we would assume that a good number of them may not have a church home and may find the Methodist church right for them.
"We certainly know, if nothing else, that members of the Methodist church are very generous with mission, with volunteering, with loving on children and families. We would love to see that connection be stronger and for the Methodist church to look at Cornerstone for those opportunities."
Cassandra Hector, nutrition coordinator, says that a key component of Cornerstone's effort is the Community Garden at Ybor.
Hector says there is no data on the students' nutritional deficiencies.
|Jeanette Hordge-Smith, Cornerstone director of community involvement, Cathy Stone, executive director, and Cassandra Hector, nutrition coordinator, converse in the garden.|
"However, what we can measure is their first interaction with harvested food out of the garden and their first taste of food harvested from the garden," she said.
“Some of the children have never had the experience of growing food or even establishing where food comes from. If you ask them, they'll say it comes from the grocery store."
Stone hopes to convert 2,100 square feet of indoor space into a community gathering place where healthy food is the draw. Stone calls it a “food farmacy.”
Cindy Sisco, president of Cornerstone's Board of Directors, decided two years ago that the faith component at Rosa Valdez needed to be stronger, so she added a weekly chapel service that includes singing and a Bible lesson, which she leads.
But she doesn't always wait for a Fridays to sing with the kids. On Monday, Aug. 12, the first day of school, she was sitting in a kid-size chair, leading the happy children through a collection of catchy Sunday School tunes.
Sisco has been a member of UMW for 40 years.
Through seven years as a volunteer, Sisco has learned there are many roles she can fill at Cornerstone, including leadership. She and other volunteers benefit as much as the kids.
"You've seen me with the children," she said. "I get a lot out of that. It makes my day."
Jeanette Hordge-Smith, director of community involvement, focuses on the future.
The first day of school was also her sixth day as a Cornerstone employee. She was born and raised just two blocks from the Rosa Valdez Center, where she enrolled her young son for this school year.
Her son will follow in the footsteps of many older relatives who attended the Center.
"It was almost a no-brainer," Hordge-Smith said of taking the position. "This organization has done so much for all of the lives that it's touched."
She plans to help the community learn "about the great work that we are doing, not just at Rosa Valdez, but in all of our programs, and really get them engaged; galvanize the community to support the families that are in need of some of the services that we're offering."
—Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.