Suntree is ‘a gift of the highest’ to elementary school


Volunteer Patti Sprunger gives a helping hand to a Harbor City Elementary School student.


When Harbor City Elementary School has a need that’s difficult to meet, Principal Joy Salamone knows just where to turn—Suntree United Methodist Church.

The large, affluent congregation isn’t located close by, and few of its students, if any, attend the small, Title 1 elementary school.

In the past three years, however, Suntree UMC has become something of an extended school family for Harbor City Elementary.

“Teachers, students, and staff get tangible things: supplies, clothes, food, time to work with students, students get another adult to support their individual learning,” Salamone said. “The intangibles are the icing on the cake. The congregation members of SUMC have given us their heart!”

Ann McCandless, the Suntree member who coordinates the ministry, said the church has roughly 25 members serving in the school as volunteers and a host of others praying for the school and providing for needs as they arrive. She has volunteered for Brevard County schools since 2002.

“This is what we are supposed to be doing,” McCandless said. “It’s where the need is. It’s a very small school, which means we know everyone now. They call me Miss Ann.”

Volunteer Janet Bethay with Harbor City Elementary students.

The Harbor City-Suntree UMC partnership took root when Senior Pastor Annette Stiles-Pendergrass and Pastor of Outreach Augie Allen began searching for a school the congregation could serve.

“Our goal was to engage a Title I school with significant needs,” Allen said. “Public schools are often places where resources can be found to have an uneven distribution. Jesus calls us to be the hands and feet of the body to go and serve our community.”

Like McCandless, many of the Suntree volunteers serve as reading tutors and as general helpers for teachers a couple of times a week. Some of the volunteers also show up at the school to decorate the teachers’ lounge every month, leaving special snacks and treats.

“I think we are a presence at the school now,” McCandless said. “I’ve seen God working in the way we’ve become appreciated and welcomed by the campus. There was some skepticism (in the beginning.)”

That presence is having a positive impact on both teachers and students.

“We are seeing better attendance rates, and our students are scoring well on district assessments,” Salamone said.

“Our teacher and staff morale are at the highest levels in years! The many little things the church members do for us make each day a little brighter, and we all look forward to seeing what is next and what can we accomplish together.”

When a majority of the school’s students needed new backpacks, Suntree UMC collected 400 backpacks filled with all the official supplies required at every grade level. The church has also donated books, socks, and coats for students in need and money so they could go Christmas shopping for family members.

Volunteers have painted the teachers’ lounge, judged science fairs and provided beginning-of-the-school-year gift bags to teachers. Last spring youth and adult members of Suntree UMC worked at the school trimming hedges, pulling weeds, cleaning restrooms, moving furniture and mopping floors.

McCandless has also rallied her troops to help the school hold three spaghetti dinner fundraisers.

“We furnish the sauce and bread, and the ladies do dessert,” she said. “It’s a lovely meal that the teachers serve.”

Suntree is currently helping Harbor City raise money for playground equipment.

Salamone said the church’s consistency has made it easier for the teachers and students to trust the volunteers and form meaningful relationships.

“This partnership has shown children and adults the positive environment that is created when a community works together for the success of the children,” she said.

“I know the Lord was standing beside us the day that Augie came to meet and talk to us because this partnership is definitely a gift of the highest.”

—Kari Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola


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