Helping schools part of Newberry culture for decades




As the husband of a Methodist minister, Larry Burris is well-acquainted with the financial struggles many churches face. So, last spring when he approached the congregation of Newberry United Methodist Church, where his wife Karen is pastor, with a need at the local high school, he knew the members would respond, but he kept his expectations low.

Every autumn, students from Newberry High School join the festivities and help build a pumpkin patch at Newberry UMC. The church also decorates cars and hands out candy to children at a Trunk or Treat event.

For two years, the church had raised money to send a dozen players from the Newberry High School football team to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp. The coach had shared with Burris how valuable the camp had been to many players of his team.

“He told me that he was convinced it was the reason the team had a winning season,” Burris said. “The boys learned to respect each other and work as a cohesive unit, and 17 of them were saved.”

The coach wanted to send more athletes to camp last summer but didn’t have the money. Camp costs $185 per student plus travel expenses. Burris was confident the members would support it again. But in a matter of three weeks, the 185-member church raised $4,000, enough to send 20.

“It blew my mind,” Burris said. “That is a huge amount of money for our congregation to give. And we don’t have one high school student in our congregation. I was really proud of Newberry, and the coach was extremely grateful. And it shows our community outreach and our values.”

Helping the schools is nothing new for Newberry Methodist. Darlene McGehee, president of Newberry’s United Methodist Women’s organization, said the church has worked with area schools for as long as she’s been a member. That’s 52 years.

“Newberry is a real small community. All the kids are our kids,” McGehee said. “My husband went to school when it was just the little red school house but now our schools are at capacity. We’re using portables. It’s not as close-knit as it used to be, but it’s a given you help out at the school if you have kids or grandkids. It’s part of the Newberry culture.”

The church’s ties with the three local schools—Newberry Elementary, Oak View Middle and Newberry High—take various forms:

  • At Newberry Elementary, teachers look forward to the first Tuesday of every month, Donut Day, compliments of the church. Last year the Methodist men sponsored a soccer team.
  • Every year, the local chapter of the United Methodist Women host a teacher appreciation luncheon for one of the schools. This year, 78 staff and faculty at Oak View Middle School were the guests and received school supplies and gift cards.
  • Every autumn, students from Newberry High School help set up the church’s pumpkin patch. For Halloween, church members decorate their cars and hand out candy to children at a Trunk or Treat event in the church parking lot.
  • For Christmas, the congregation sponsors an Angel Tree decorated with the wish lists of at-risk students.

Newberry Methodist members also volunteer for one-on-one interaction with students, including tutoring.

Last year, Burris introduced the congregation to another education initiative, Take Stock in Children, a statewide program that pairs at-risk middle-school students with mentors.

The church recently provided a teacher appreciation lunch that included faculty and staff from Oak View Middle School in Newberry. Part of an annual event, teachers are shown here receiving school supplies and gift cards.

Alachua County has 348 students in Take Stock, said Luisana Segu, program director for the Education Foundation of Alachua County, which administers the program. The students sign a contract agreeing to keep a 2.5 GPA, to not use drugs or alcohol and to avoid being suspended or arrested.

The mentor and student get together regularly for lunch to talk about anything. The meals begin in the sixth grade, and if they’re still going when the student is a senior in high school, the student is eligible for a two-year college scholarship worth $8,000.

“They are good students who have the odds stacked against them,” Segu said. “They may have single parents, multiple siblings, incarcerated parents, English as a second language.”

Larry describes his student as an overachiever, who consistently makes As and Bs. His parents work at a warehouse, but money is tight. “He was new to the community, and so was I, so we hit it off,” Burris said.

“I had never heard of a mentoring program like this,” Burris said. “I thought that this would be a good thing for me to do to contribute something to someone just making their way. Mentors don’t tutor or counsel. It’s another adult to walk beside them through life. I wish I had someone like that.”

Both Burris and McGehee said Newberry Methodist is well-known in the community for its outreach to the schools.

“Newberry Methodist is very good to the community,” said Oak View Principal Katherine Munn. “It’s a very valuable partnership. I know that if we needed something, like volunteers, I could go to them and ask, and they would be right here.”

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.


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