Fifty young scholars danced their way into Peace United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, Mo., for seven weeks this summer, excited about participating in another day of school. It was a special learning opportunity made possible by a partnership with Deaconess Foundation with financial support from UCC Neighbors in Need.
"The summer experience was amazing," writes the Rev. Wendy Bruner, pastor of Peace UCC. "It was filled with laughter and music, cheers and chants, serious discussions and was truly transformational for all involved."
The congregation in the St. Louis area just wrapped up its second year acting as host of a Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program site, a ministry that got off the ground at Peace UCC in 2017 with the help of a $3,000 grant from Neighbors in Need.
One of five special mission offerings of the UCC, Neighbors in Need supports ministries of justice and compassion throughout the United States. The theme of the 2018 offering is 'Love your Neighbor.' Calendared for Oct. 7, World Communion Sunday, the offering is usually taken by UCC congregations in early October. One-third of the collected funds support the Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM), with two-thirds of the offering used by Justice and Local Church Ministries to support a variety of justice initiatives, advocacy efforts, and direct service projects. Grants are awarded to churches and organizations doing that work in their local communities.
Funds from the 2016 grant allowed the Deaconess CDF Foundation Freedom School program at Peace UCC to serve children and their families. It’s a free six to seven week learning opportunity that encourages the whole family of each young scholar to participate. Parents gather for meals together and talk about issues, like racial equity, that are important to them. At the end of each school experience each child, from kindergarten to second grade (fifth grade in 2017), goes home with six books that reflect the diversity of the community in which they live.
"The children loved attending Freedom school," Bruner said. "They were supported by amazing Servant Leader Interns (teachers), provided healthy meals and snacks and made friends. They were encouraged to dream about their futures and stand up for what they believed in."
In 2017, the initial group of 30 children demonstrated an increase in instructional reading levels, and one young scholar heading into first grade experienced exceptional growth. The boy is on the autism spectrum and his parents were concerned about a possible decline in his social interaction skills. He did so well at the CDF Freedom Schools program, his mom sent a letter of thanks to Peace UCC, declaring the program "a blessing."
"My son wakes up excited every day," mom wrote, "He comes home singing the songs and repeating the chants. We feel so lucky to have found this program. Thank you for all the time you have devoted to Freedom school and for taking such good care of him."
Bruner also noted that the CDF Freedom Schools program has also proven to be transformative to her entire congregation.
"Every person from the church community participated in some way," Bruner said. People began to build relationships with the young scholars and their families and became invested in their lives. It was amazing to experience the increased energy in the congregation."
To support other endeavors like the CDF Freedom Schools, Neighbors in Need is now taking applications for the 2018 funding cycle. The application deadline is September 30, and UCC congregations and organizations are to apply online. First time project grants range from $1,000 to $10,000 — direct service grants offer up to $3,000 of support to charitable organizations, food pantries, literacy programs; advocacy grants offer up to $5,000 to UCC organizations and churches working on community mobilization and advocacy campaign; the Grass Top Grants, or project-based grants, offer up to $10,000 for new and innovative ways to impact systems to advance justice.
"I cannot express the depth of our gratitude to Neighbors in Need for your part in making the CDF Freedom Schools program at Peace UCC a transformational experience for everyone who participated," Bruner said. "Many, many thanks."
For more information and to apply, go the Neighbors in Need webpage.