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Church after-school programs can be safe haven for kids

Shirley McMarlin
| Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Volunteers Vicki Loucks and Erin Mongell talk with children at a 2016 session of GROW, the after-school youth program at New Stanton Church.
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Volunteers Vicki Loucks and Erin Mongell talk with children at a 2016 session of GROW, the after-school youth program at New Stanton Church.
Volunteer Jenny Patton helps Andrew Gill with homework during a 2016 session of GROW, the after-school youth program at New Stanton Church.
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Volunteer Jenny Patton helps Andrew Gill with homework during a 2016 session of GROW, the after-school youth program at New Stanton Church.
Minnie Peck and Nikyah Jones make pizzas at a 2016 session of the after-school program at the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington.
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Minnie Peck and Nikyah Jones make pizzas at a 2016 session of the after-school program at the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington.
Children in the after-school program at the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington show off eclipse viewers made from Pringles cans.
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Children in the after-school program at the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington show off eclipse viewers made from Pringles cans.
Children practice dinner conversation and manners during a 2016 meal at the Club FRED after-school program at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe.
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Children practice dinner conversation and manners during a 2016 meal at the Club FRED after-school program at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe.
Volunteer Kelly Stanko (center) leads a class during a 2016 session of Club FRED, the after-school program at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe.
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Volunteer Kelly Stanko (center) leads a class during a 2016 session of Club FRED, the after-school program at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe.

At a number of area churches, hushed tones give way to the exuberant voices of children during weekly after-school programs.

Often, attendees are not church members and the focus is more on providing learning support, food and a safe haven, rather than on proselytizing. It's a subtle style of evangelism, adult leaders say, showing the love of God through meeting needs rather than through preaching.

While Jesus and other biblical figures make an appearance during storytelling time, the discussions afterward often look more at issues of character and citizenship than at faith and religious practices.

If questions of faith follow, that's a welcome bonus.

And, as in biblical times, the breaking of bread is an important part of the mix.

Growing roots

In 2016, 90 kids from grades K-5 were registered in GROW (Growing Roots on Wednesdays) at New Stanton Church, a United Methodist congregation.

Busing is provided from Southmoreland and Stanwood elementary schools and there's a $30 fee for 24 weeks of programming, says Emily Hill, the director of children's ministry.

When the program started five years ago, Hill says, “It was mostly our church kids who did attend and they invited their friends, and it spread by word of mouth. Now I'd say the majority are not members.

“Part of (GROW's popularity) is that we're pretty cheap child care for one afternoon a week, and I'm OK with that,” Hill says. “It's a little more than $1 a week to come.

“We're filling basic needs for our families,” she explains. “We have a lot of nontraditional households in our area: single parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren. So, this gives them a meal, and a safe place to go one day a week.”

Hill says one child asked to take extra applesauce cups home for breakfast and another asked to take food home so that his brother would have something to eat.

“We've found that dinner is super-important to some of our kids — it means a healthy meal for that night, and they can eat as much as they want,” she says.

Gathering at the table

Many of the programs follow formats similar to K-Force Kids, where 20 or more children in grades K-5 are welcomed on Wednesday afternoons from fall to spring at Christ United Methodist Church in Youngwood.

When they arrive, kids have a choice of spending quiet time on homework or engaging in board games. Later, they're separated by age group for team activities.

Dinner is kid-friendly fare like spaghetti, mac ‘n cheese or even breakfast foods, says program director Susan Murphy.

The meal is served family-style, with one child serving as a runner to deliver dishes to each table. They serve each other and all clean up together. One or two adult volunteers will sit at each table, Murphy says, to lead the kids in appropriate mealtime manners and conversation.

The session concludes with a Bible story and craft activity.

Family members are invited to join kids at dinner during Club FRED, the Thursday afternoon program for grades 1-6 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe. A $1 donation is requested.

The program name gives a nod to Latrobe native Fred Rogers, says program coordination Kathy Ferlin, but the acronym actually stands for “Food/Recreation/Education/Discussion.”

“It was the church's decision to make it strictly an after-school program to support (Latrobe Elementary School),” she says, though homework and story time are held in the Sunday school classrooms, so questions of faith can arise.

“A child might ask, ‘Who's in that picture' or ‘Why is that thing there?'” Ferlin says. “In that case, it's simply shared who it is and what it means.”

“The meal is served family style, and we use the time to teach the children how to converse at the table and to develop some life skills that way,” Ferlin says. But grace precedes the meal, and Ferlin says one or another of the children often will ask to lead.

Families of participants are invited to services and to join in other church activities.

Good qualities

October is cookie-baking month at Kids' Honors Club at the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington, where Monday sessions are held for grades K-6 and Wednesday sessions are for grades 6-12.

Sixth graders can decide if they're more comfortable joining the younger or older group, says Stacey Oden, director of Christian education.

Kids have a half-hour of free time when they arrive, and then there's a lesson and activity, followed by food.

“Our lessons are Bible-based, but it's not really a Bible lesson,” Oden says. “We might use a biblical figure to talk about good moral qualities — we just talked about Daniel in the lions' den.

“Sometimes a topic (of faith) will come up, and we'll give guidance and helpful hints,” she says. “Who knows what will come of that?”

Though the program follows the school-year calendar, the kids do get together in the summertime. There's a hot dog ministry on Mondays, when they take to the street by the church and hand out free hot dogs and lemonade. On Wednesdays, there's a free popsicle ministry with games and activities.

High energy

A “high-energy game,” outside if weather permits, kicks things off at Wednesday Prime Time sessions for middle- and high-schoolers at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ligonier, says Kylie Weber, co-coordinator of youth ministry.

A quick workout after sitting all day in school helps participants focus on the talk and small groups sessions that follow, Weber says.

“We'll have a quick talk, something like how to get to know God better. The small groups help them to think deeper,” she says. “It helps us see who's buying into the things of faith. We're hoping for a progression of faith.”

Both age groups get together once a month for dinner.

Another big draw for the program is the Prime Time band.

“It's open to anyone interested in music,” Weber says. “Right now, most of (the members) have been together since middle school and about half are seniors.”

The band rocks out during Prime Time, but tones things down to play worship music during Covenant's 9 a.m. contemporary service.

“We're trying to play every six weeks for the service,” Weber says.

Everyone welcome

Weber says that, of Prime Time's 20 to 30 middle-schoolers and 40 to 50 high-school members, most are not members of Covenant. It's also common that attendees do not belong to another church.

“We don't even ask (about church membership),” Hill says of the GROW program. “I'd say a little over 50 percent are what I'd call unchurched. They may not even know who Jesus is when they start.

“Our church is very mission-minded, and we wanted to do something useful right in our own back yards,” she says. “It's great getting to know the kids and their families.”

Even with the hustle and bustle of modern life, there's no lack of volunteer help.

Club FRED gets about 10 to 15 volunteers per week to help with an average of 20 kids, Ferlin says.

“We can do a lot of one-one-one during homework time with the students who need it or are easily distracted,” she says.

At Prime Time, the team of 10 to 13 helpers includes many in their 20s, both singles and those with young families, Weber says. Older people also come to pitch in.

Hill's volunteer roster includes five youths and more than 30 adults, from parents of participants to those in their early-to-mid-20s and even senior citizens.

“I've never had to beg people to help,” she says.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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