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Manatee school finds an angel in Oneco UMC

Manatee school finds an angel in Oneco UMC

School-Church Partnerships

Janet Saver

While others might just drive by and never notice Oneco Elementary School, others see an opportunity to serve God.

That especially includes the members of Oneco United Methodist Church in Bradenton and Janet Saver, a lay leader, former teacher and mission chairperson at the church.

“We had always partnered with Oneco Elementary with school supplies; but a few years ago, we felt led to do more so we started a clothes closet with school uniforms, as well as underwear and socks, teacher breakfasts and sending encouragement cards,” she said.

“The school is right across the street, and I just felt led by the Holy Spirit that we should be doing more for these kids. I felt like the Lord put the church there; and the school is part of our community, and we should be more involved with them.”

The church also:

  • Helps supply school uniforms for needy children, including shirts, shorts, pants and jackets. They already have a full rack of clothing for the next school year;
  • Participates in school mentoring programs;
  • Provides access to the church’s food pantry and makes Christmas baskets for families referred by the school, and
  • Hosts a welcome-back-to-school breakfast for the teachers and staff with goodie bags that include, among other things, a prayer bear with scriptures, pens, bookmarks and chocolate candy. Church members also regularly drop off treats at the teachers’ lounge.

“We not only want to encourage the children, but also the teachers and staff,” Saver said.

  • The congregation writes prayers each week for a specific teacher.
  • The church worked to restore and expand a school garden, teaching children how to grow their own food while passing on valuable science lessons. 
  • Male church members have also greeted children as they arrived for school, encouraging and welcoming them.

Oneco Elementary faces no shortage of challenges.

Every student qualifies for free lunches with 100 percent living in poverty, according to a 2017 Manatee School District report.

Oneco Principal Ronnie King, back row standing, welcomes members of Oneco UMC to a 2017 garden party at the school. Seated from left are Lisa Willis, Rita Carvin and Dolly Pond, with Janet Conte standing in the back row.

Also, about 30 percent of the school’s children are non-English speakers, the report said. Access to health care also is a serious problem for families there.

Oneco serves an average of 600 students and was one of 11 Manatee County schools to receive a D rating last year from the Florida Department of Education. It was the third consecutive year Oneco, a Title 1 school, received that grade, although the school came with 0.6 percentage points of earning a C. School officials appealed the D rating to no avail.

“For our families on some days, it’s deciding if they want to spend the money on gas to get their children to school (50 percent of students are driven to school according to district figures) or using that money for food or gas to drive to work,” said RaeAnn Rickoff, a graduation enhancement technician at Oneco Elementary who specializes in addressing any special needs or stresses families face.

As the point person between the church and school, Rickoff heard church members say they could help more.

“It took me about the second year I was here to realize they really meant that. All we have to do is call them and they say, ‘What do you need?’

“Even if it’s just a person to help serve food at an event so the teachers don’t have to do that and can then mingle with the parents and build relationships there.”

The partnership meant, for example, that rather than starting a food bank at the school, the school works with the church to direct families to the church’s food pantry.

“We are able to work together to say to parents, ‘If I can’t help you at the school, there’s another place to go and it’s right across the street.’

They (Oneco UMC) just bend over backwards to help these families,” Rickoff said.

The church believes it is a calling.

Gene Hany, left, and Frank Saver delivered uniforms to Oneco Elementary at the start of the school year for children who cannot afford them. It’s one of many ways Oneco UMC helps the school whose students live in some of Manatee County’s poorest neighborhoods. 

“We are right across the street from the school; and we believe that God has put us there for that school, and God has given our church a heart for the school,” Pastor Gene Maddox said.

“As with all children, they love to be loved and feel important, and we try to do that. The principal has worked wonderfully with us. It’s a beautiful relationship. We count it a privilege to hold that school in our hearts.”

Church member Carol Hany also has “a great heart for the school,” Maddox said.

“Carol passes out cards and shares the names (of teachers) we prayed for the previous Sunday morning at worship so that those eating can write notes of encouragement to those teachers,” he said.

“She then delivers the cards to the school the following day.”

That spirit also saw church members among the first to sign up when the school started a mentoring program last August.

“We really saw God's hand in this,” Saver said. “One of our church members who lost her husband decided to be a mentor. The Lord picked just the right child for her and love came easily.”

When the mentor found out the young girl didn’t have a bed, Oneco UMC went into action and found one.

“She not only got a bed but a dresser, two night tables and pink bedding. To God be the glory,” Saver said. “We are committed to this school; and through the Holy Spirit, we are excited to see what the Lord has for us all as we reach out with the love of Christ.”

For more information on Oneco UMC or to help with the program at the school, call (941) 755-5943.

—Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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