Small church is committed big time to literacy




Trinity United Methodist is a small church near downtown Lakeland with a part-time pastor fresh out of seminary and about 100 members. Sunday congregations are usually 40 or fewer people, and they might reach 80 in winter when the snowbirds are in town.

Judy Hays

“We’re very much a bunch of little old ladies—the last couple of Sundays we’ve had only one man at the church,” retired school librarian Judy Hays said. “But we are very mission-minded.”

Hays and her sister, Joy Helmold, a retired music teacher, have found that a church doesn’t have to be big to do meaningful mission work. You just have to care about the right things, which for a retired teacher and school librarian means helping kids learn to read.

So, the sisters and a group of other volunteers at the church, led by Rev. Ian Campbell, formed a partnership with Southwest Elementary School in Lakeland

“They adopted our school as their own,” said Tiffany Beardsley, the school’s reading specialist.

According to Beardsley and other school officials, the Trinity volunteers are making a difference in reading achievement at the school, which serves an economically depressed area.

Southwest is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives federal aid because of its large concentration of low-income students, assistant principal Brady Draper said.

The volunteers do various projects at the school, sometimes handing out backpacks stuffed with school supplies or providing juice and cupcakes for Student of the Month celebrations. They provide kids a small stocking with a treat at Christmas and supply pumpkins for the Thanksgiving pumpkin roll.

But their biggest commitment is helping kids learn to read, focusing on the second graders—those about to enter the crucial third-grade year when reading competence becomes critical for further advancement.

The reading program, based on a plan called ARISE2Read, is now heading into its third year.

“It was a blessing,” Beardsley said. “A co-worker found the program and brought it back to me, but there’s no way we could have done it on our own. We just don’t have the staff.”

Trinity volunteers packed school supplies for their school partner.

The volunteers come to the school and take children who need reading help out of class for half an hour a week of coaching and mentoring, concentrating on “sight words.”

In reading-teacher parlance, those are words a child can’t easily sound out phonetically but must be able to recognize instantly, by sight, to read efficiently.

Those are common, short words that make up much of any text, like “the” and “that,” “could” and “would,” “to,” “too” and “two,” “there” and “their,” and so on.

After working with sight-word flashcards or lists, the student reads to the mentor, then talks about the story.

“A lot of people will tell me, ‘I can’t do that, I’m not trained as a teacher,’” Hays said. “I tell them if you know the word ‘the,’ you can do it.”

Beardsley said feedback from classroom teachers is that the program has produced a noticeable improvement in reading for the children involved. This year, that’s about 40 of the school’s 460 students.

“They look forward to the sessions,” Beardsley said. “They feel special that they have someone who comes to help them.”

The school hasn’t measured the progress of the individuals in the program separately, but that reading proficiency has improved six percent among the third- through fifth-graders, with most of the improvement coming among those who were farthest behind.

“You have to attribute some of that improvement to all these mentors coming in and reading with the students,” he said, noting that some of the current third- and fourth-graders would have been through the program in its first two years.

“But another important thing is the relationships the volunteers build with the student. For some of them, that may be one of the best relationships they have in their lives.”

Hays said the idea for focusing a volunteer mission on literacy came from Florida’s Bishop Ken Carter, who has a passion to advance literacy.

“We tried to start it at another school, but they were worried about religion coming into the school,” she said. “But we’re just there to help. The kids sometimes don’t even realize we’re from a church.

“Sometimes, some of the kids just need love. Their problem is they’re so emotionally strained they can’t concentrate.”

She and her sister both use walkers.

“We heard one kid say, ‘They’re old, but they’re fun,’” Hays said.

Trinity's little library provides free books.

Hays also started a tiny libraries project through the church: small house-shaped boxes on posts containing books that anyone can take and read for free. They try to put them in places where kids will be, including school bus stops.

Most of the books come from donations from the Trinity congregation, but Hays has also used her former librarian connections to get deals on low-cost books.

Campbell, 26, has been at the church a year, after growing up in DeLand and attending seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.

Trinity, where he’s the only paid staff member besides a part-time secretary, is his first church assignment. He works two-thirds of his time there and one-third at an even smaller Lakeland church, Highlands United Methodist.

At Trinity, he’s a millennial with a congregation of seniors, including several retired teachers.

Many of them live in nearby retiree communities, and most are white. But the church’s neighborhood, Lakeland’s historic Lake Hunter Terrace district, is racially diverse.

“We’re constantly having conversations about how to better reach out to our neighbors,” Campbell said.

The reading program and other volunteer church missions that involve about 20 church members are an attempt to do that.

“Some of the leaders among the volunteers just have a desire to serve,” he said. “That’s part of their faith, to serve others. For me, at some level, it always comes back to being a part of the work that God does in restoring people’s lives and their relationship to one another, to God and the world.

“We talk a lot about the world feeling broken, and what’s happening in the world seems tragic. To me, restoration is part of it. God is about healing and giving people something to hope for.”

—William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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