Transforming Lives and Communities with Support from the Pentecost Offering
When the second grader Susan Byrne is assigned to tutor at Willow Brook Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, goes through his reading lesson, he holds onto Byrne’s hand the whole time.
“He’s just so delighted to have an adult paying extra attention to him. When I peek in his classroom window, his face lights up,” she says. “No one is as glad to see me all week as that little boy. He’s so bright but just needed a little help with reading.”
Byrne, who attends First Presbyterian Church of Oak Ridge, helps organize tutors for the elementary school. She started working with her assigned student in the first grade. He’s now moved onto second grade and Byrne is moving up with him.
“Now he says he wants to learn to improve his writing and asked me to help. His teacher also asked me to help with his math tutoring, which is terrifying to me,” she adds with a small laugh. “But we can do it — we’re already working on it together.”
Willow Brook Elementary sits in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods of Oak Ridge. Many of the students’ parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet while others are incarcerated or absent. That means some of the children need a little extra help to further their learning.
According to principal Sherrie Fairchild-Keyes, the school now has almost 50 tutors for grades K-4. Nearly half come from First Presbyterian Church. It was member Rosalyn McKeown-Ice who first made the connection between the church and the school.
“I sit on an ‘Educate a Child’ roundtable in Louisville, guided by Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, who coordinates the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People,” she said. “At the August 2017 roundtable meeting, we were challenged to ‘go home and try something.’”
“Sherrie also attends the church, so I asked her for some ideas on how to help out at the elementary school. We filled in where needed — doing everything from stuffing folders for the upcoming school year to providing evening childcare.”
The church provided additional tutors, and the school provided training, teaching the volunteers how to work with the children in the most effective ways and matching each volunteer with a student. Principal Fairchild-Keyes says she’s seen a transformation in the students who are part of the program.
“I see a pronounced change in some of the kids. The relationship built between a tutor and student is so important — having another adult to count on and look up to. It makes the children more excited about learning and helps build their confidence and even correct behavioral issues,” the principal said. “We also want our students to learn from a young age that they belong in a community and for them to know that every one of us has a role to play. By expanding their view and connections in the community, it helps them understand that it’s not just internal, it’s beyond school.”
From April 13 through May 31, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be focusing on a churchwide effort to support young people and nurture their faith through the annual Pentecost Offering. That includes focusing on the importance of our call as Presbyterians to Educate a Child, Transform the World.
“Theologically, from our own baptism and the baptism of our children in our churches, we are called to take very good care of a generation, including their education,” McKeown-Ice said. “These kinds of things are easy to organize and support. Just talk to those working with children in your community and find ways to assist with programs that are already in place. It’s an effective way to help.”
Principal Fairchild-Keyes agrees.
“I think as a Presbyterian it’s vital to become more involved. Helping children in the community opens up our church,” she said. “The community in Oak Ridge is very collaborative across multiple denominations. Our students are economically disadvantaged, some have incarcerated parents or have experienced homelessness. Sharing that love, being a bright spot for some kids that don’t have that is an expression of our faith.”
Byrne adds that this work is not something Presbyterians can wait to do. She encourages every church to look around and see who God has put at your disposal and ask, “Who are natural partners for us to work with?”
“Our immediate support of children is critical,” Byrne said. “If a person can get a good education, they have a chance to succeed in life, no matter where they come from. We also know that people who build prisons are putting together their stats on how many beds to have based on little boys who can’t read in third grade now. We must make sure these students hit that critical third-grade reading level and not become another statistic.”
You can find additional resources and ways to support young people and their own faith journeys by clicking here.
This was originally published for Presbyterian News Service on May 26, 2020.
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By giving to the Pentecost Offering, your congregation participates in helping our children, youth, and young adults grow up to proclaim with the Psalmist, "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds."