By Maggie Blackwell
for the Salisbury Post
Thirty-six area churches have answered the call for support in the public schools. More help is needed.
Dr. Rebecca Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum for Rowan Salisbury Schools, asked churches to adopt a school last spring with her Faith-Based Summit. Several churches rose to the challenge.
Some churches donated clothing for the used clothing box. One church donated large bottles of hand sanitizer to all the teachers in one school. A few churches chose to forge long-term relationships through adopting a school ó identifying its biggest needs, and trying to meet those needs.
One such church is First Methodist Church in downtown Salisbury.
“I was asked to attend Dr. Smith’s Faith-Based Summit in the spring,” says Jan Dyrholm, who spearheaded the FUMC effort, “and it just exploded from there.”
First Methodist’s 48 volunteers logged a total of 360 hours in the first semester at Isenberg Elementary School. Dyrholm met first with the guidance counselor at Isenberg to identify what kind of help was needed, and how many volunteers were needed for each class. The needs were for lunch buddies, reading buddies and tutors.
Dyrholm came up with a list of names and got a good response after calling people personally.
In August, all the mentors ó including professionals and retirees ó went to the school library to meet the teachers, identify needs, and set their schedules.
Volunteer mentors might help with math or read to a student, or just have lunch and chat. The church has helped in other ways as well, donating school supplies and clothing, and in its latest effort, providing weekend food for the neediest children.
Calling their food provision effort “Backpack Buddies,” volunteers donate prepared food in individual serving packages, often with pop-top cans ó like soup, Vienna sausages and beanie weenies. Care is taken to pack enough to last the weekend and to provide balanced and nutritious meals. Volunteers pack food in nondescript backpacks along with juice boxes, raisins and snack crackers, and on Friday, volunteers give backpacks to selected students as they board their buses. The children return the empty backpacks on Monday, and the cycle continues.
“The children are so appreciative,” Dyrholm notes. “Parents are, too, although in some cases it’s hard to receive help. We just encourage the parents to pass help on to others in the future when they are able.”
In addition, four men from the church help with computers. A nurse presents health concepts to the students. The church donated gift cards to Food Lion for Christmas, in addition to food baskets.
Although the commitment required is only a half-hour per month, volunteers have averaged 2.5 hours a month. Most visit the school more than once a month.
Dyrholm is proud of her church’s response to the call.
Principal Jerome Heggins told Dyrholm that the students ask “if the Methodist People are coming today.”
The next project is to send home a bag of groceries once a month for a couple of struggling families.
“These people are really trying to help themselves,” Dyrholm says.
“It’s evolving. It’s going beyond just helping in the classroom. We have adopted this school. We have embraced it. We are doing as much as we can do to help the children.”
Another church that has embraced the total school adoption is First Presbyterian Church, adopting Overton Elementary School. Thirty-four volunteers from First Presbyterian Church have committed an hour a week, giving a total of 150 hours in January of this year. About 100 students out of 420 at the school are being served at this time, with seven on the waiting list.
Mentoring two girls there, a fifth-grader and a second-grader, is Dick Crane. Crane is an imposing figure, more than 6 feet tall, his head crowned by snowy white hair. His voice is Bear Bryant deep. He had just retired from Rowan Helping Ministries and had some time on his hands.
“I’ve always been pretty active in the community,” he said. “Between the church, politics, and community service of some kind. And I love kids.” He now mentors three children at Overton as well as an eighth-grade boy at North Rowan Middle.
Leslie Cataldo and Sherry Bryan organized the mentoring effort.
“I know the folks at First Pres and I knew they would make a difference,” Cataldo says. “I was also concerned about gangs in Salisbury. They are recruiting kids in elementary school. The kids want a feeling of belonging. We can help with that. It’s definitely been a blessing in those children’s lives. And yet I know it’s been a blessing in the lives of the volunteers.”
“The other aspect is that we cannot expect one teacher to meet all the needs of all the children,” Bryan adds. “It’s our responsibility as a community to help these children in the classroom in whatever way we can.”
“It’s such a joy to see them succeed in their goals,” she continues, “and to know how hard they worked for it.”
Dr. Jim Dunkin, pastor at the church, agrees. “It’s been amazing to hear the stories from the volunteers. The work has a very special meaning in their lives.”
Dunkin mentors two second-graders. “I treasure the time I spend at the school … Sometimes being a pastor can be a little stressful. It’s almost like a little vacation to go sit in a small chair and read about Henny Penny for a little while.”
Volunteers make a difference in two ways, says Betty Tunks, principal at Overton. “It excites the adults and highlights their day in what the children say and what they do.
The children also benefit, Tunks says, not only academically but by forming a positive relationship with a mentor.
“It’s making a difference to the children,” she says. “Behavior has improved. When the adults are here, behavior is definitely better. The children want them to be proud of them. I’ve been so pleased. The people are warm, and they are happy coming in, and the kids are happy to see them.”
The two churches have adopted the schools in different ways: First Methodist dealt with the school directly, paying out of pocket for the background checks of all the adults and organizing meetings directly with school staff. First Presbyterian allied with Communities in Schools, a non-profit organization that works to meet the basic needs of children in the schools. All volunteers for Communities in Schools are required to attend a one-hour training session and have a background check.
Koontz Elementary School has received help from a number of churches in the area. Dr. Bob Hefern cited help from Salisbury Christian Fellowship, First Baptist Church, Christ United Methodist, and Stallings Baptist.
“The help has been amazing,” he said.
These churches have donated uniforms and school supplies. Two men from First Baptist built a lectern for the stage. They have assembled equipment. A couple from one of the churches purchased the flags for the auditorium.
“Yet there are still many needs,” he says. “We still need bookbags and school supplies. And we always need volunteers. We have lots of kids who need someone to eat lunch, read a book, or help with homework.”
Smith is pleased with the response to her challenge.
“We have been so blessed and enriched by the generosity and caring that has been demonstrated by our faith-based partners. We look forward to a continued relationship with the varied individuals from many different denominations who have found the time and resources to help our students.”
Mayor Susan Kluttz says she is proud of the local churches who have reached out to the schools, and she challenges all churches in Salisbury and Rowan County to find ways to become involved.
She points out that in addition to the churches working directly with the schools, others have made commitments to help through Youth Services Bureau’s Times Two Mentoring, including St. John’s Lutheran, Soldiers Memorial AME Zion, Milford Hills United Methodist and Grace United Methodist churches.
Any churches who wish to adopt a school can contact a school principal directly or contact Vicki Slusser with Communities in Schools.
Maggie Blackwell is a freelance writer who lives in Salisbury.
By Maggie Blackwell