Elementary, My Dear Watson
Feeding, tutoring, and caring for children is a no-brainer for the Oshtemo Area Churches
Walk into Prairie Ridge Elementary at lunchtime, and on the far side of the cafeteria, you’ll spot a woman playing checkers with a child. The woman is a volunteer from the Oshtemo Area Churches (OAC). The student is one of a few who struggle with social interactions. Rather than sitting alone at recess, these students are given a structured but fun environment in which to practice taking turns, to interact with their peers, and to learn life lessons in a small and safe way.
Six churches in Oshtemo, Michigan, are part of OAC: Voyage Church (RCA), Centerpoint Church (RCA), Heritage Christian Reformed Church, LifeSpring Church, Lighthouse Community Church, and Oshtemo United Methodist Church. Together, they strive to bless the community, especially the children of Prairie Ridge Elementary.
In partnership with Communities In Schools (CIS), which brings resources into schools across the United States, OAC volunteers tutor individual students. They also work in an afterschool program that provides dinner, homework help and academic lessons, free time, and transportation home; the program is for students who aren’t at grade level but aren’t doing poorly enough to receive other services. On Fridays, volunteers wheel in carts stacked with backpacks filled with food to send home with students; last year, 60 percent of Prairie Ridge students were eligible for free or reduced lunches, and many need additional food assistance on the weekend. Volunteers also organize events to connect parents with resources like free dental care and eye exams.
Last year, OAC volunteers numbered 47. That’s 80 percent of all volunteers at Prairie Ridge.
“Everywhere you look, there’s someone from the OAC,” says principal Karen Spencer. “[They’re] reading with children, playing with them out on the playground, helping them with math, playing with small groups, helping the teachers in the classroom, doing alternative activities during lunch.”
Partners mean power
OAC dates back to 2014, when a story captured Wes Tillett’s interest—a church inviting students to pick out Christmas gifts for their families. Tillett wanted to do something similar at Voyage, the church plant he pastors, but he worried Voyage was too small to do something on its own. He invited several Kalamazoo churches of various denominations to join forces. Three said yes, including Centerpoint, Voyage’s grandparent church. (Centerpoint started the church that started Voyage.) Two more churches joined OAC later.
Additionally, a group of people (24 from Voyage and two from Centerpoint) formed an “impact group”—essentially an oversized small group with a missional focus—with the express purpose of serving at Prairie Ridge.
“We’re not the pioneers,” says Tillett. “We’re partnering with people who know a lot more about this than we do.”
Alexis Arocho, a member of Voyage and lead secretary at Prairie Ridge, agrees: “Rather than one or two churches saying, ‘We think we know what the answer is,’ they’re partnering with an organization [Communities In Schools] that’s already in the building. [CIS] already knows the teachers and the staff, which allows there to be an extra bit of trust.”
And the volunteers have built on that. The longer OAC has been involved at Prairie Ridge, the more trust the volunteers have earned, says Spencer. “The volunteers are part of our culture. They have helped us to become a more welcoming place for our families and our children. ... There’s a sense [for the students] of ‘I’m being cared for.’
“My staff and Kalamazoo Public Schools are amazing, but the job is big and to have this partnership just multiplies beyond imagination what we are able to give to our children.”
Build trust first
That trust is important in a school where more than a few children have difficult home lives.
“We need people in the building being a positive influence,” says Arocho. “Consistency is really important. A lot of boys don’t get to see a man follow through with his words, [so] the biggest thing is the consistency and the connectedness—‘I’m here because I care about you.’”
It’s not unusual for a volunteer to have tutored the same student or worked with the same teacher for several years in a row, making for a trusting relationship that allows the volunteer to meet deeper needs. Sometimes a teacher will ask a volunteer to pull a student out of class to help the child process home issues that are affecting behavior.
Dewey Walker, a member of Voyage, volunteered as a fifth-grade math tutor last year. But the students he worked with were so far behind and had so little support from home that improving their math skills would take “a miracle worker,” he says. When students got frustrated, he’d take them for a walk or play a game.
“I tried to emphasize that more than anything else, I cared about them and about their future,” says Walker. “I was probably a whole lot more successful on that level than on making progress on their math skills.”
Arocho and Tillett both affirm the importance of meeting basic needs—whether physical or emotional. Those basic needs, like proper nutrition to be able to focus on schoolwork, drive the mission of OAC.
“It’s hard to move beyond the basic need for survival if those things aren’t in place,” says Tillett. “We pray that the food is God’s love made edible.”
Jesus often fed people before speaking the gospel, Arocho points out. “If people’s needs aren’t met, you haven’t earned the right to speak into their lives,” she says. “We’re still in the ‘earning respect’ phase after a couple of years. If Jesus can take the time to meet a need before speaking the truth, we have a responsibility to do that.”
OAC’s determination to meet those needs is making a difference. Last year, the number of suspensions among students in the afterschool program at Prairie Ridge was lowest of any school in the district. Arocho says that counting suspensions is one of the best ways to measure personal growth in students. “If they’re not getting suspended as often, [that’s because] they’re not acting out as much, and then they’re not missing out on interaction or on dinner [in the afterschool program].”
Last summer, Communities In Schools awarded OAC with a Champ Award, which honors businesses, individuals, and organizations that have made a big impact in a Kalamazoo school through a partnership with CIS.
Tillett hopes that OAC can start to figure out how to begin addressing not only the immediate needs but also the systemic challenges.
“Poverty is complex. Evangelism is complex. Trying to move from emergency relief to development is tricky,” he says.
At least the churches that are a part of OAC aren’t trying to figure it out alone.
“There’s so much that local churches share in Christ that transcends our differences, so much common ground we have in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he says. “When we go out on mission together, it’s pretty exciting and powerful.”
Want to help children in your city? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas on how to get started.
If you’re already volunteering, ask God to help you meet immediate needs and address systemic issues.
Visit www.communitiesinschools.org to see if CIS is active in your area and to partner with them.