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'Small steps' changing lives in Fruitland Park

'Small steps' changing lives in Fruitland Park

School-Church Partnerships

The majority of the congregation at Community United Methodist Church in Fruitland Park may be retired men and women living in The Villages, but on Wednesdays, children outnumber seniors on the church campus.

Volunteers at Community UMC in Fruitland Park have been working with children at the school next door for 20 years. Nearly 50 people are signing up weekly to work and play with students at Fruitland Park Elementary School.

Thanks to a 20-year mission to serve neighborhood children, the congregation invites more than 120 elementary school students every Wednesday during the school year—referring to it as Wonderful Wednesdays—to learn about everything from cooking to puppetry, sign language and how to play the ukulele. It’s a free program serving Fruitland Park Elementary School next door and one of many activities the church offers to families in the community.

“There are a lot of children hurting,” said Faye Umble, children and education minister at Community UMC. “Children need to have people love them and care for them and have people on their side. People are looking for acceptance.”

Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter has made “Our Kids,” a program promoting and nurturing school-church partnerships, one of his major initiatives. He hopes that all Florida United Methodist churches will connect with a local school, where the need is great and where there are “at-risk” students. It is a grassroots effort.

At Community UMC, children have been the focus for many years, even before they hired a full-time children’s minister 10 years ago, Umble said.

Retired businesswoman Joyce Hone, 70, has been volunteering in the children’s program for four years and says it’s a “perfect” opportunity for people like her to serve.

“I’m away from my grandkids,” Hone said. “My talents are minimal, but I like spending time with these kids. I can’t say enough good things about this program.”

The church in Fruitland Park has about 50 volunteers on campus each week and hundreds of children involved in various programs, including 30 regularly attending Sunday school.

“People want to see numbers, but that is not what this ministry is about,” Umble said. “There are too many people who are hurting and lost, and it’s hard for them to focus on their spiritual life. When you need a home or food or clothing, you aren’t thinking about going to church. People just want to know that you care about them.”

Her senior pastor agrees.

“Get the idea of church growth out of your head,” Rev. Daryl Allen said. “Of course, bathe the whole thing in prayer. Sometimes, taking that first step is scary. We have consistent conversations with the church and pray about it.”

Though Allen has only been at the church for two years, he is as committed to serving the children and families of the community as those with longer tenures.

In addition to learning puppetry, sign language and cooking, students participating in the "Wonderful Wednesdays" program are given the chance to play the ukulele.

“The community we serve is blue collar,” Allen said. “We knew we had to support them. I knew the vast majority of the children (at the neighboring elementary school) were on free and reduced lunch. We have the resources. We have the time. I think it is vitally important to be God’s witness in the community.”

Both he and Hone said the mission is made easier by the devotion and enthusiasm of Umble, who was recently honored by the city of Fruitland Park with a proclamation of “Faye Umble Day” on Sept. 17 because of all that she has done for the community’s children.

As the children’s minister, Umble said she spends time with her volunteers helping them in the school-church mission.

“She really encourages us,” Hone said. “She is open. She always has a smile. She has a lot of energy. We do have high school and college-age volunteers, too, and Faye coordinates all of us.”

In addition to Wonderful Wednesdays, the church also offers one-on-one tutoring. This year, 15 children are receiving weekly instruction from 15 congregation volunteers. The church hosts a Boy Scouts of America troop and Cub Scouts troop. They provide backpacks and school supplies at the start of the school year, an Easter egg hunt and a Halloween pumpkin patch.

Last year, they opened their family center building to the Fruitland Park Elementary School’s robotics club for what is expected to be an annual competition for fourth and fifth-graders.

Umble said she has seen God at work through the school-church partnership, especially when she sees children bring their families into a relationship with God.

“A lot of times, we don’t know the effect we have on the families,” Umble said. “(But) it is the most unselfish thing we can do.”

Umble said any church could get involved in the lives of their neighborhood’s children through local schools. She encourages small steps.

“Meet with the school administrations and ask them what they need most,” she said. “Find out your neighborhood’s demographics. It’s okay to start off small, but cast a vision. Find out that thing that you can do to help. Then build relationships with people.”

--Julie Cole is a freelance writer based in Gainesville.

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