Iowa church assists at-risk families
Name Each Child program targets educational needs, planning
The Rev. Faith FerrZ, minister of discipleship at Plymouth Congregational UCC in Des Moines, Iowa, says that, just as the gospel calls all Christians, her congregation is defined by its strong commitment to social action. For that reason, FerrZ says, she couldn't imagine not being involved in public education.
The Plymouth church family takes its commitment seriously. Through the "Name Each Child" program, based in Des Moines, Plymouth partners with a long list of organizations—including United Way of Central Iowa, Des Moines Public Schools, the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Annie E. Casey Foundation—to identify and help at-risk families move out of poverty into self-sufficiency.
The families are identified by caseworkers in the public schools and "Name Each Child" partners form "circles of support" for them. Each "circle of support" includes three allies—trained volunteers who, through weekly meetings, help the family with educational needs, financial planning, and finding the proper community connections and resources to attain their goal.
Margaret Jensen Connet, a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC and an ally with the Name That Child program in Des Moines, Iowa, hugs one of the children in her circle of support. Scott Miller photo.
FerrZ, who serves as one of 30 allies from her church, says the program works. Her involvement with an Ethiopian mother and her three elementary school-aged children already has resulted in the family moving to a safer neighborhood and the mother securing a better job. Now the mother is saving for a car and FerrZ is doing what she can to get the family in line for a Habitat for Humanity home.
But "Name Each Child" is just one way the Plymouth congregation stays active in the public schools. FerrZ says a group of church members mentor children at a nearby elementary school. Another group teaches English as a second language to parents of Latino school children. Yet another group tutors first and second graders in reading. "There are lots of ways of being involved with the public schools, and there really are things we can do as middle class people with connections," says FerrZ. "It helps to have advocates."
Tutoring program shows big 'heart'
ConnectiKids blends community resources, 'neighborliness'
Asylum Hill Congregational UCC in Hartford, Conn., reached out to elementary school students more than 25 years ago by offering after-school tutoring. The grassroots effort of a handful of church people has resulted in something much bigger. Today, ConnectiKids is a working partnership between local schools and parents, nonprofit organizations, state agencies and businesses to provide after-school tutoring two days a week to kindergarten through 6th-grade students using school curriculum. Additional leadership programs for children continue for grades 7-12.
With a yearly operating budget of nearly $400,000, ConnectiKids offers tutoring at six different sites, free of charge to 200 at-risk children in Hartford. Sandra Sydlo, executive director of ConnectiKids, says that, while a majority of the fi nancial backing comes from large corporations, United Way and state funding, Asylum Hill's undying support of the program—through in-kind donations, constant volunteer presence and a generous $40,000 per year grant—lie at the heart of the program.
"The church basically gave birth to [ConnectiKids]," says Sydlo. Before the agency was incorporated, she says, they made sure it could continue, even through rough times. Frankly," Sydlo says, "the organization wouldn't exist without the church's support."
Fred Ward, minister of outreach at Asylum Hill, says the church's tagline reads, "A church in the heart of the city, with a heart for the city."
"That stands for so much of what we do and why we do it," says Ward. Besides ConnectiKids, Ward and other church members keep abreast of the needs in the local public schools by attending meetings of a School Improvement Team at a nearby middle school. At one point, Asylum Hill provided food and child care at PTO meetings to encourage attendance. Other church members recently were involved in the school's accreditation process. "We just engage in good neighborliness," says Ward.
Small church builds big character in students
Fairmount Congregational UCC, situated in the near northeast neighborhood of Wichita, Kan., is in the poorest and most crime-ridden section of Wichita's metro population of a half a million people. Last year, there were twice as many drive-by shootings in Wichita as there were in San Diego.
The Rev. Michael Poage, pastor of Fairmount, knew the church could be a small but mighty force in a community that so needed its help. Partnering with the local Inter-Faith Ministries group, Fairmount UCC became involved in GoZones!, an AmeriCorp program that provides after-school tutoring and character building activities.
Five days a week, Fairmount UCC serves as one of six sites where students can go after school, from 4-6:30 p.m., to work on homework, get individual tutoring and stay off the street. Poage says that after a nutritious snack, students know they are expected to do their homework first.
"The emphasis is on academic improvement as well as individual mentoring and character education, self-respect, respect for others," says Poage, who notes that his church also offers a computer lab for the students to work in. When the work is done, there is time for fun. Since Fairmount doesn't have a gymnasium, the church cooperates with nearby Wichita State University for use of their gym.
GoZones! primarily is funded by an AmeriCorp grant, but each site is responsible for coming up with matching funds. Last year, half of Fairmount UCC's matching funds came from a UCC Neighbors in Need grant.
Fire consumed the building of the 400-member Redeemer UCC on March 12, with damage estimated at $4 million. Despite the loss, on March 21, the church participated as usual in the UCC's annual One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) special mission offering, which aids those affected by disasters. The congregation received a $3,000 emergency check from OGHS, as well as immediate assistance from the UCC Insurance Board. (Lake Country Reporter)
The Connecticut Convention Center, now under construction in Hartford, is expected to be open for visitors by mid-2005. The 140,000-square-foot exhibition hall will be the site of the UCC's 50th anniversary celebration at General Synod 25 in July 2007. (Hartford Courant)
Santa Cruz, CA
First Congregational UCC will host what has been dubbed "the largest wedding reception ever held in Santa Cruz County" when it gathers California's same-gender newlyweds and their friends for an interfaith blessing ceremony and church reception on May 2 in celebration of the couples' marriage commitments. (Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Harold and Hilda Keest, a farm couple from Logan County, Ill., have bequeathed more than $1.5 million to four local charities, including a $780,000 gift to the endowment fund of St. John UCC. "We praise God for their generosity," says Larry Simonson of Christian Homes, a nursing home in Lincoln, which received a $195,500 gift. (Lincoln Courier)
'I am UCC'
"My wife, Hope, our daughter, Anna, and I have enjoyed the powerful sermons, beautiful music and warm fellowship of First Community UCC for more than 10 years. Our church is an open, dynamic and vibrant community which welcomes all as equals—even governors—without regard to poll numbers or public approval ratings."
Gov. Bob Taft (R-Ohio)
Member, First Community UCC in Columbus, Ohio