Good Samaritan works to close gaps in school needs




After 16 years as a high school teacher and administrator, Jason Koerner recently became principal at Tallahassee’s Conley Elementary School.

“It’s a new environment,’’ Koerner said.

But he already feels very much at home.

During his first week on the job, he was called on by the staff and members of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church. For two years, the church has partnered with Conley, following the initiative of the Florida Conference and Bishop Ken Carter, who asked member churches to consider linking with neighborhood schools.

“It was really impressive,’’ Koerner said. “You could tell how much they cared about the school. They took so much ownership. Being brand new here, having that kind of support made me feel so good.

“Even beyond that, when I talked about the programs I was looking to continue or start at Conley, they wanted to jump on board and help.’’

Good Samaritan members have organized teacher appreciation luncheons and served as classroom helpers. They have been mentors and reading buddies to the children. They grilled hot dogs at Conley’s “Back to School Bash.’’

During the summer, they organized the successful “Coins 4 Conley’’ campaign.

Forty families at Good Samaritan’s Vacation Bible School were charged with collecting loose change and contributing funds to help feed the Conley students in need of weekend nutrition.

At the presentation of the $1,200 donation (“Coins 4 Conley”), left to right: Conley Elementary School principal Jason Koerner, Good Samaritan pastor Betsy Oullette Zierden, children’s ministry director Hanna Taft,

Coins 4 Conley raised $1,200 — including a 20-percent donation from the congregation — that will help six Conley students fill up with a backpack of food (provided by Second Harvest) during each weekend of the school year.

“Instead of a pre-packaged mission (project) that comes with VBS, we wanted to do something local,’’ said Good Samaritan member Ana Ortega, whose daughter is a third-grader at Conley Elementary. “We encouraged kids and parents to search for their loose change, dollars, whatever, anything they could find.

“The kids got so excited. We heard they were going through the coin cups in their car, digging deep into sofas and couches trying to find some coins. When we told them it would be used to fill backpacks of food for kids their age, they really got super excited.’’

Now it works both ways.

Conley students and teachers were invited to participate in Good Samaritan’s annual World Culture Festival.

“Schools always talk about having that community environment and atmosphere,’’ Koerner said. “They have a vested interest in our school, but we also have a vested interest in their church. It’s great to partner both ways. We can host some events and also encourage what they’re doing.

“A lot of times it’s the school that reaches out and asks for help. I’ve certainly done my share of that. But by them showing up to me with the only motivation being just to help, it just shows that we’re part of the same community. The school and church are about a mile apart, and it truly does feel like a partnership.’’

Hanna Traft, Good Samaritan’s office manager and director of the children’s ministry, said her children went to Conley, and she feels like “a part of me will always be at Conley.’’

She said the partnership is one of the church’s most gratifying efforts.

Money collection buckets used for the "Coins 4 Conley" campaign.

“It’s connecting the church and the school, two very important parts of any community,’’ Traft said. “We’re trying to empower more people to be present at the school on a weekly basis, and we have gotten great participation. We think it’s a benefit to everyone.’’

Ortega agreed.

“We enjoy serving in the community,’’ Ortega said. “The teachers and kids get the benefit of that time.

“Conley is not a Title 1 school, but it’s not affluent, either. It’s in the middle, and sometimes there’s a gap. Typically, Title 1 schools receive these types of services, but middle-of-the-pack schools are often lacking resources and don’t get any type of help. I think we’re providing needed services for teachers and kids in a meaningful way.’’

Traft and Ortega said they received tips on how to best help the schools during a Conference-sponsored training workshop.

“We got tremendous instruction on how to engage a school instead of swooping in and telling the school how we’re going to help them,’’ Ortega said.

“We ask them how we can be helpful. Our approach is to help meet what they feel are the biggest needs. No preconceived notions. We are there for them.”

Koerner said he appreciates that philosophy.

“It’s kind of a thing where they say, ‘Tell us what you need, and we’ll try to help,’” Koerner said. “I know some of our teachers haven’t had parent sponsors for their rooms. Well, Good Samaritan wants to know those gaps, so they can find those volunteers.

“It’s very encouraging. The word ‘partnership’ is thrown around a lot these days, but I do look at Good Samaritan as a true partner to our school. We are very, very grateful.’’

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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