Congregation, kids find blessings in Florida program
By Mary Elle Hunter | Presbyterians Today
A call to action was extended to members of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida, in early 2017. Following the encouragement of the 221st General Assembly (2014) “to continue the long history of support in public education,” the church took steps to partner with a local elementary school.
Led by retired pastor the Rev. Ronald Miller, and with the approval and support of the session and the current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Glen Bell, a committee that called itself “Invest in Children” was formed to explore the needs in the school system. The committee found that reading levels were far below the norm in several elementary schools.
Although many of the schools were receiving outside funding or community involvement to address the problem, one was identified as a school in a neighboring area with the most needs — Brentwood Elementary. At Brentwood, more than half of the students receive free lunch due to financial hardship.
A meeting was held with Dr. Patti Brustad Folino, Brentwood’s assistant principal, and what was to become a rewarding partnership with the church and school had its beginnings.
Folino stressed an ongoing need for volunteer support, particularly in the primary-level classrooms. Initially those needs were partially met by 12 members of First Presbyterian — six men and six women.
“Have you ever heard the quote ‘Who saved who?’ That is what I think of when I see the impact our First Presbyterian volunteers have on Brentwood’s staff and students,” said Folino. “Our teachers acknowledge their influence often to me, while children show their gratitude with smiles of appreciation to have extra help and attention.”
Volunteers say they too feel blessed by the experience as they accept the mission of loving others across lines of difference in the name of Jesus Christ.
“It’s a privilege to be present with the wonderfully diverse children as well as the deeply committed teachers in the classrooms,” said the Rev. Dr. Floyd Churn, another retiree in the congregation who volunteers. “Whether helping a second-grader increase his or her word recognition and vocabulary or encouraging a hyperactive kindergartner to focus on a science project, I know that I’m a small part of a vast network — teachers, administrators and parents — who desire that our children grow strong in learning.”
First Presbyterian’s Diane Bittner often assists the art teacher, preparing projects that will be used during class time so the teacher will have more time to work with students. She said the children are all appreciative.
Another volunteer, Drew Stuart, is enthusiastically welcomed by a class of first-graders when he comes each week. Twice in the last year he has presented a class lesson, as well as working with students independently. One lesson was on the difference between bats and birds; the other dealt with invention and innovation.
First Presbyterian’s role at Brentwood has expanded beyond the work of the volunteers. Through the generosity of its members, a mountain of school supplies was made available to the students, and Brentwood’s Reading Center was equipped with new furniture, through a contribution from First Presbyterian’s portion of the Pentecost Offering.
A memorable gathering at Christmastime enabled congregation members to celebrate shared blessings with students and their families. Blessing Trees adorned the corridors of the church for several weeks in early December, allowing members to commit to gifts of toys, clothing and grocery gift cards. Then at a dinner celebration with a happy mix of children, parents, volunteers, teachers and church members, games were played, carols sung, the Christmas story told and gifts distributed.
“With so much that is wrong in the world today, it’s gratifying to see people coming together to do something that’s right for others,” said Brentwood principal John Weida. “The impact that the First Presbyterian volunteers coming into our classrooms has on our children is phenomenal.”
First Presbyterian’s Invest in Children program continues to grow, with now more than 30 volunteers helping the schoolchildren.
“Invest in Children represents the best of our Christian faith,” said Bell. “It’s a creative effort to serve the children, parents and teachers of a nearby school. I join with the committee in thanking God for the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us through this mission.”
Mary Elle Hunter is a freelance writer and a member of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida.
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