When Erin Bruce had her own two children, it made her start thinking more about other children, particularly those who wouldn’t be growing up in well-educated, economically stable families like hers.
About three years ago, she started attending Gainesville’s First United Methodist Church.
“It’s the first church I’ve ever been to where people try to practice what they preach,” she said. “Being in that environment, I wanted to do something in my community.”
When Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter issued a call for churches to form partnerships with schools in underprivileged communities, it led to what Bruce was looking to do.
Now, she’s one of a half-dozen or so volunteers from the church who spend at least an hour a week at Metcalfe Elementary School in Gainesville.
She goes to a fourth-grade class, where some of the students aren’t reading at that level, every Monday during “literature time.”
“I just go around the classroom and focus on the ones who are struggling a bit more,” helping them understand what they read, she said.
“Some don’t need any help at all, but they just like to talk, so I talk to them. The teacher, Mr. James, said ‘Just give them love.’”
The church’s partnership with Metcalfe is just getting started; last year was its first school year.
Annette Johnson, the former director of youth and family ministries who has since moved to another church, formed it in response to the bishop’s call.
Jesse Letourneau, the current director and one of the volunteers, said the direct work with the school is “the most hands-on thing we do.” The church is institutionally involved, as well.
“It’s partly academic skills, but also to help the students imagine a world bigger than where they are and help them realize they have the potential to be in that world,” Letourneau said. “That’s not a message these kids hear a lot of places.”
Last month the school came up short raising money to send its 13 safety patrol members on a field trip to Washington, D.C., leaving the families facing having to pay $150 of the $600 per-student cost.
For most, that would have been out of reach. The church took up a Sunday collection and covered that plus the cost for a chaperone.
“It was a chance for them to experience history and culture they otherwise wouldn’t get to,” Letourneau said.
The church also helps with school events: donating candy for the Halloween party, sponsoring teacher appreciation lunches at the beginning and end of the school year and providing start-of-school supplies and gift cards for teacher appreciation week.
“It is definitely a school that faces a lot of challenges and is under-resourced except for their faculty and staff,” he said. “My impression is they work hard to give these kids what they need.”
Letourneau said he couldn’t blame a teacher who would prefer to work in a school with a fully furnished computer lab and a heavily involved PTA full of non-working moms or professionals, where field trips like the one to Washington are funded quickly and easily. But that’s not Metcalfe.
It’s a small school located near the church in central Gainesville with about 200 students, 98 percent qualified for free and reduced-price lunches. Many students come from single-parent homes, which limits parental volunteerism at the school.
Many students come from single-parent homes, which limits parental volunteerism at the school.
“A lot of our parents work two or more jobs,” Assistant Principal Kelitha Rainer said. “Many students who come to us lack skills such as communications.
“Having a volunteer on campus helps them see the community in a different light. It helps them academically, and it’s expanding their view of the world.”
Bruce, who teaches cardiovascular physiology at the University of Florida, said many of the students who struggle with reading are bright, but she suspects their home life doesn’t provide much time for conversation with parents. That leaves them unaccustomed to the kind of language they see in books.
One day, she said, a youngster couldn’t understand the phrase “make a fool of …” even though he’s smart and knew the words. She explained, and a light dawned.
That’s the idea behind all this, to turn on the light.
“It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this,” she said. “I’m definitely going to continue.”
—William March is a freelance writer in Tampa.