When Bishop Scott J. Jones spoke about the “We Love All God’s Children” an initiative of the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Debbie Tipps was all ears – and ready to spring into action. On a recent visit to Tyler, the Bishop spoke about literacy. “If a child doesn’t grasp reading skills early on, they fall behind,” Tipps recalled. “It broke my heart when I started thinking about the kids in Henderson.”
She works as minister of congregational care and children at FUMC Henderson, where the school drop-out rate is high.
Tipps is confident that fostering a love for reading could change that.
Tipps explained that by the 3rd grade, children need to have mastered reading skill so they can pass the STAAR test.
That’s not an easy task, especially for some students, Tipps said. She knows how difficult reading can be from her own experience.
“When I was a child, I really struggled with reading,” she said. “It was very difficult for me. Fortunately, my mother and grandmother were teachers and knew how to help. But a lot of kids don’t have anything like that at home.”
Tipps took on illiteracy as her own personal mission. Bishop Jones’ words egged her on.
“He said something that I’ll never forget, something that changed by life as a preacher,” she recalled. “Stop saying, ‘We can’t because . . .’ Instead, I want you to say, ‘We can, if . . .”
Pastor Tipps put pen to paper. “I took out my legal pad, which is where I do all my thinking,” she said. “I started envisioning. I made a list of what this would look like. What does our community need?”
FUMC Henderson had two working buses and one in need of repairs. If she could get all three vehicles to pick up local kids and take them to church for lessons, there would be room for 40 students in the program.
That would require 40 buddy readers, in addition to bus drivers and chaperones.
At first, the number of volunteers alone seemed too daunting for Tipps to take on, but she decided to try.
“I started talking to my senior pastor about it and to key leaders,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is my dream. God has placed it in my heart.’ The more I talked about it, the more people said it was a good idea.”
Before long, 40 individuals signed up to be buddy readers. In total, 60 volunteered to help launch the program.
“People I would have never thought to ask, just stepped up when I presented this need in our community,” Tipps said.
Then, she approached the school district, explaining how the church wanted to help children at risk.
When she opened the afterschool ministry called Spark last September, the roster was full.
Now there’s a waiting list.
“The kids love it, and the volunteers love it,” Tipps said. “We’ve seen some really neat relationships develop. And we have lots of stories about transformation.”
Spark is a Bible centered program designed to promote literacy, and Christian discipleship for children in first through third grades.
Each week, students come to FUMC on Wednesday for a healthy snack, one-on-one buddy reading with an adult volunteer and activities created to teach the children about the love of God in Jesus Christ through music, games and crafts.
“The kids love their buddies,” Tipps said. “They come running in to see them. There’s a lot of love in the room.”
Students come to Spark across cultural lines and socio-economic backgrounds, the pastor said.
“This has been such a success,” she said. “It’s just a joy to walk in and hear the laughter and see the excitement. It’s thrilling to see.”