Summer Program Lets Kids Be Kids

March 7th, 2013
This article is featured in the Outreach 2013 (Nov/Dec/Jan 2012-13) issue of Circuit Rider

SPRINT (St. Paul’s Reaching Into Neighborhoods Together) began in 1995 as a brainstorm of two members and a pastor attending “FORUM,” a national United Methodist Youth Ministry event in Mesa, Arizona. Service would be the centerpiece, with St. Paul’s youth volunteers and recent graduates working for a small stipend to serve the Wellington Heights community by providing a blend of recreation, education, service, and faith development for neighborhood adolescents. SPRINT would be a summer program, an extension of St. Paul’s youth ministry, offering an opportunity to serve the poor, immigrant, and refugee families of our community.

Structure and Fun

The team of volunteers and hired staff gathers at 11:00 each weekday for devotions, prayer, and planning. Neighborhood youth arrive at noon for lunch—most walking to and from St. Paul’s— then participate in recreation, community awareness, education, field trips, and special events each summer weekday afternoon until 3:00 p.m.

The Barnes & Noble Reading Program provides a great opportunity for older children to read to the younger children and helps plant the idea of volunteering and helping others. Kids enjoy time in the kitchen preparing snacks, using math skills, reading skills, and people skills, working as a team, the kids plan, cook, and take pride in serving their snack. Swimming at the local pool, roller skating, bowling, doing archery, running track, shooting hoops, and going to the city parks are ways SPRINT incorporates movement and conversation about healthy lifestyles.

Each year we ask for help from the Cedar Rapids Police Department, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and the Red Cross to help provide safety tips for our children. We talk about who the children can trust and where they can go for help. We want our kids to know these people as the “good guys” who are there for them.

Including people of poverty, some non-English speaking, along with the natural, unavoidable wear and tear on the church rooms being used was sometimes uncomfortable for the church. Not everyone embraced the program’s goals and was comfortable with the noise level, messiness, and commotion. Nonetheless, it was congregational support that funded SPRINT the first summer, with a grant from the United Methodist Church for new youth programs providing essential financial backing for the three following years. Then, United Methodist Women embraced SPRINT and partially funded it each year as a part of their missions budget.

The budget for 2012 was approximately $12,000 and was funded by church contributions, the St. Paul’s Foundation, and community grants. One director, four youth counselors, a younger “junior counselor” volunteer, and a maximum of thirty-six children participate with the support of a five member advisory board. There is no cost to the participating children.

Learning Their Struggles

One challenge in the beginning years, in addition to funding, was getting to know better the population being served. We soon discovered that in order to have a program for neighborhood adolescents, we had to provide for the younger siblings in their care during the summer. Many of the 11-14 year old children were responsible for numerous younger siblings during the day, so we expanded to include groups for elementary age and preschool children.

SPRINT serves a number of refugees experiencing the trauma of leaving their homelands. This sometimes results in behavioral challenges, which are addressed by collaborating with volunteer counseling resources. SPRINT has become an excellent way for youth in the congregation to increase their cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Instability is another struggle the staff observes. Lu Wherry, Director of SPRINT, says, “Even with pre-registration, we are never sure who is going to show up on a daily basis. Our children live in a neighborhood of turmoil. On any given day a parent may be evicted, arrested, or thrown out of a living situation. . . . Sometimes we are the only form of normal in their lives.”

Transformative for All

The experience of SPRINT has affected the lives of staff as well as those of participants. Two former SPRINT staff members are now ordained clergy. Four are teachers serving low-income schools. One is an attorney with an interest in poverty law.

Wherry says, “It is the best job in the world. I get the chance to work with wonderful kids doing wonderful things. It is more an opportunity to help steer the children of Wellington Heights than a job.”

We are always amazed with our SPRINT kids and how positive they are. So many have had troubles in their lives, a missing parent, a parent in jail, or they are in the custody of a grandparent. Many have moved many times in their short lives, attending different schools, always meeting new kids and teachers, always having to adapt to something new.

With the SPRINT program, at least their summers can have some consistency. They look forward to the SPRINT program each summer and days and days of carefree fun—free of turmoil, free of fear, free of hunger—days spent just being a child.

Recently, a former participant, now a high school graduate and mother of a two-year-old, told us, “I never really knew why you guys did all the work of being with us every day, but it totally changed my summer. I had something to do each day. I looked forward to it. I could tell you cared.”

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