Churches partner with schools for year-round support

By BYNUM GUSTAFSON,

While most people spend their summers lounging by the pool, going on vacation and taking a well-deserved break from their work, such is not the case for many Hattiesburg churches.

For some churches, school is not only a concern during the school year, but during the summer as well, in the form of various partnerships between church and state.

Ekklesia

Neighbors at Hawkins, a non-profit founded by Ekklesia Hattiesburg, is changing the way people look at the public-school system.

Ten years ago, when Ekklesia was initially coming to fruition, with only five or six people in a living room trying to form a church, the first order of business was to find a place in town where the church would be able to invest in.

“We made a commitment to spend as much time and resources as we could outside the church walls,” said Michael Dixon, head pastor at Ekklesia. “Fifty-one percent of our budget would always go toward our community.”

Connections with some of the teachers and principals at Hawkins Elementary, combined with the close proximity to the church, lead Ekklesia to focus service efforts at the school. Thus, Neighbors at Hawkins was formed.

Through a partnership with America Reads – Mississippi (ARM) AmeriCorps, Neighbors is able to hire full-time tutors for Hawkins Elementary. This, combined with the numerous people that volunteer each week, allows for a hands-on approach that directly benefits the students.

“We’re there to serve the staff and the administration in any way possible,” said Sharon Miles, director of Neighbors at Hawkins. “Whatever the need is, we fill it.”

What makes Neighbors at Hawkins unique from other partnerships of the same kind, is that Neighbors is actually a separate entity from the actual church.

“The goal is not to just have a place for members of the church to have some place to volunteer,” said Dixon. “But to have an outlet for anyone and everyone in the community to go out and make a difference.”

Through the work of Neighbors and those involved with it, Hawkins has seen a 22 percent average increase in reading scores, a number that is steadily going up. Hawkins even has the highest percentage of third graders to pass the third-grade reading gate in any Hattiesburg public school.

But it’s not just the students who benefit from the partnership, but those who have the opportunity serve as well, such as Ekklesia’s Minister of Community and Stewardship, Caroline Nurkin.

“To see the kids smile, and to see the happiness in the school – I feel like it’s made my life so much better, just getting the chance to show up and help. I wish everyone could experience the feeling.”

The progress that has come out of Neighbors is certainly good news, but Ekklesia is hopeful that their efforts will be able to inspire other church’s in the pine belt.

 “If we could just convince every church in the Hattiesburg to go out and help the school’s closest to them, we would be that much closer to fixing all of the problems with public schools,” said Dixon. “Together, we can make this town a better a place.”

If you’d like to donate to Neighbors at Hawkins, any and all donations go through the Greater Pine Belt Community Foundation, with 100 percent of donations going directly to benefit the educational needs of Hawkins Elementary. Ekklesia hosts church services Sunday evenings at 5 pm at the Court Street Methodist Church located at 609 Southern Avenue.

 

Venture

This year marks the fifth year of the donation partnership between Venture Church and Thames Elementary School.

“Tracy Robinson, who now works for their central office, was at Thames and was a partner (at Venture),” said Brandy Stewart, the adult ministries coordinator at Venture. “She reached out to Craig Curtis (an associate pastor at Venture) and asked what we could do to bring the two together. It's really all thanks to her.”

Ever since, thousands of items are donated each year to the kindergarten through fifth-grade school. Last year even saw the donation of hundreds of school uniforms.

“It was actually through a specific request out of the school,” said Stewart. “We want to do what the school actually needs, not just what people think they might need.”

The real reward, Stewart says, is seeing the impact that the donations have on those receiving them.

“You don't realize how meaningful it is to those teachers who have to give out of their own pocket for their classrooms. When you can hand them this enormous pile of supplies –  they are so pumped,” said Stewart. “They're volunteering their time to be here for collection on Sundays – and these are people that don't necessarily go to our church, but they're so thankful, that they come here to be a part of it.”

Stewart recalls multiple instances of the donation drive being a key part of allowing the gospel to be spread through the community.

“There are at least three families I know that weren't going to have the money to provide the uniforms for their kids. When they found out that we had donated (uniforms) to Thames – they were so impacted that those families decided ‘Venture is our church – this is where we want to be.”

The real reward, Stewart says, is seeing the impact that the donations have on those receiving them.

“It’s really one of the greatest ways to tangibly show the love of Jesus to somebody that you might never get to meet.”

The list of supplies needed this year includes:

• Wide-ruled notebook paper

• One-subject spiral notebooks

• Sticky notes

• No. 2 Pencils

• Pencil erasers

• Crayons

• Colored Markers

• Expo dry-erase markers

• Kleenex tissues

• Hand Sanitizer

• Clorox Wipes

Venture will be accepting donations through the end of July. If you wish to donate, please bring any and all supplies to the yellow tent inside the atrium of their Lincoln Road campus located at 4142 Lincoln Road, during services at 9:30 or 11 on Sundays.