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Largo church goes beyond sanctuary, fosters connections

Largo church goes beyond sanctuary, fosters connections

School-Church Partnerships

For about six years, a love between church and community has been growing steadily in Largo. The result has been amazing, with students in the high poverty neighborhood surrounding Anona United Methodist Church soaring in reading scores and in character.

Anona UMC recently worked with students at Orange Grove Elementary to bring back a long-forgotten butterfly garden that had been covered in weeds. It was part of a school beautification project.

Thanks in part to a reading program built with church volunteers and agencies in the community, the kindergartners at Ridgecrest Elementary School have reached nearly 100 percent in their reading goals, said Rev. Richard Landon.

“Ridgecrest Elementary nominated our church for Business Partner of the Year. It made the finalist list three years ago, and this past year we won it,” Landon said.

“I am fostering the connection, but it is the heart of the people who want to get outside the walls of (our) church (that) make a difference.”

To that effect, Ridgecrest Principal Michael Moss scheduled a sit-down in Landon’s office, as did Religious Community Services of Pinellas County and the local YMCA.

“It’s not just a school (speaking of Ridgecrest). It’s a community, a rather impoverished area down the street,” Landon said.

“I had an idea. What would it look like if we all sat down together? Instead of working in silos, we united our efforts. Now we’ve got 13 different organizations” involved.

“It’s really been very much of a robust partnership,” Moss said. “About six years ago, I talked with Richard Landon about some ways we could work together, create a partnership between the church and the school. The work resulted in creation of this community coalition, which Anona really spearheaded.”

Anona UMC currently works with nine schools. Landon wants Anona to be the example other churches can follow.

The ultimate goal is to create healthy children and healthy families.

“We have supported Black History Month, healthy-family fairs where organizations come in and share free resources with families. We had the Million Page Challenge to read over the summer, including parents, too,” Moss said.

“The school has recognized us for changing the skills in the life set of the students we have worked with over the past four years,” said Anona volunteer Karen Schmautz. “Their testing has gone way up compared to what they were and compared to other schools. They have exceeded expectations,” she said. “We care about them, and the human connection is important for them.”

“We probably had over 100 volunteers last year, both church members and outside,” Landon said. “We focus on kindergarten and first, then second grade. When we sit down with teachers every year, we say, what do we need to do to make it better, and how can we coordinate?”

“Considering the lives some of these children have, it’s important,” Schmautz added. “They had a problem with students getting into gangs, drugs, all kind of things. Their ability to keep up in school was falling. The school was learning—by the time kids reached third or fourth grade—which ones were not going to make it through.”

Over 90 percent of the Ridgecrest students receive free lunch, she said. “It’s serious poverty. They need someone in their life to direct them into a different place.”

That is why the character program spearheaded by the church is also important, she said.

Anona UMC has donated $20-30,000 to support curriculum materials and other instructional needs, Moss said. “They purchased the Core Essentials character education program. Our school received the 2016 state of Florida School of Character award and the 2017 National School of Character award. We are very proud of that,” and Anona UMC helped make it happen, he said.

Students from Seminole Middle School are shown participating in a program started by Anona UMC called 5000 Role Models. The goal is to match young men with community mentors. After meeting Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, students later visited a call center and K-9 demonstration.

Anona UMC serves 40 to 60 students per year just at Ridgecrest.

“Five days a week, those kids get help,” the pastor said. “We are working first on letters, pronunciation; then by end of the year, they start reading.”

The church also does Pack-A-Sack 4 Kids, which is sponsored by the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries-Suncoast, a charitable organization serving six counties in West Florida. It ensures that children in food-insecure homes receive meals on weekends. About 60 students get a sack filled with cereal, soup, fruit, milk and a snack.

“We make sure they have a breakfast and peanut butter and crackers, dinner with the soup. This is one of the things that makes the church the hub of the community again,” Landon said.

Landon described Anona’s involvement in another program called Ridgecrest 360, a community of organizations committed to children and youth “from cradle to career.”

“You can’t do a reading program in every school,” he said. “We’ve done landscaping in Orange Grove Elementary and at Career Academies of Seminole. We’ve connected Habitat for Humanity with kids learning to be plumbers and electricians. Habitat has shut down sites to other volunteers and gotten licensed electricians and plumbers to work overseeing the students.”

“The school tried for years and couldn’t do it,” Schmautz said. “Nothing else worked. This is working so amazing.”

“It’s a phenomenal program,” Moss said. “It has had a profound impact. It’s been a game changer for our school.”

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger

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