By Lindsay Peyton
Clear Lake Buddies builds bridges of literacy, health and mentoring for students
The coronavirus is no match for the Clear Lake Buddies. The group of volunteers from Clear Lake UMC has found new ways to serve their neighborhood elementary in the midst of a pandemic, whether working on tasks outside or donating WiFi to children without Internet service. Currently the church is gearing up to make sure COVID-19 does not stand in the way of Christmas for students.
In fact, this year’s Christmas offering at Clear Lake UMC is completely reserved for “Jeans, Jackets and Joy.” Each of the 365 students zoned to Clear Lake Elementary, who are identified as low-income by the district, will receive a gift card from the Clear Lake Buddies.
Last year, the Rev. Charles Anderson explained that the congregation provided students with a gift card for Academy. The card allowed parents to take their children shopping and pick out exactly what they want. The same will continue this year, only with jeans and jackets. The school counselor will discreetly distribute the gift cards to parents who can then choose clothes for their kids.
“We’re big on preserving the dignity of the parent,” Anderson said. “We really want to give two gifts – the gift of Christmas to the kids and the gift of dignity to the parents.”
This is merely one example of how the church’s Clear Lake Buddies program found a way to support the elementary, in spite of the coronavirus. The group also pivoted from assisting teachers in their classrooms to helping children as they walk to school or during dismissal. They greet children on their way to class and lay out cones to direct traffic at the end of the day.
In addition, when the district identified a number of students without Internet access, Clear Lake UMC raised the funds to make sure no student fell behind. “We committed to no child at the Clear Lake City Elementary going without a hotspot,” Anderson said.
Clear Lake Buddies Staff Coordinator Lacy Stole added that the group offered to become prayer partners to any teachers or staff in need, and 12 have signed up so far. “We wanted to cover these teachers in an immense amount of prayer during COVID-19,” Stole said. “We’re trying to do everything we can at a distance. There are still a few jobs we can do.”
Clear Lake City Elementary counselor Kari Euker had no concerns that the Clear Lake Buddies would find ways to continue their services during COVID-19. “You just don’t doubt their dedication,” she said.
Stole felt the same way. “More often than not, we find a way,” she said.
Still, there were times when she wondered how to continue the work as the pandemic presented more and more obstacles. “I sat at my desk and thought, what are we going to do if the kids don’t go back to school? What will this look like? But we just found other things we could do,” she explained.
Recently, Stole made magnets as thank you gifts for the school’s faculty and staff. “We just want them to know that we’re still here,” she said. “Let us know what you need. We’re going to continue to listen – and find ways to help.”
Anderson explained that the church made a five-year commitment to the outreach effort. While there are other missions at the congregation, this one is the top priority.
The congregation, many of whom are older and long-time residents of the area, has welcomed the opportunity to help the school children in the neighborhood. “This is a very accessible program, that our retirees feel comfortable taking on,” Anderson said.
Before COVID-19, students enjoyed seeing Clear Lake Buddies in the library, the cafeteria and the sidewalks. The volunteers could be found reading with children, assisting teachers in the STEM lab, manning activities during special events or serving as cafeteria monitors.
Students become bankers
In addition, Clear Lake Buddies acted as “bankers” in the school’s financial literacy program. Euker explained that students earn “money” from attending school and doing tasks on campus. Then, they practice real-world tasks, like paying rent, only for their desk instead of home. They learn to budget their savings.
“The Buddies volunteer to be the bankers, which frees up a teacher, when the kids need to check on their accounts,” Euker said.
One woman even monitors the sidewalk each morning and afternoon for students walking to and from school, ensuring their safety and reporting if there’s anything suspicious in the area.
“In the freezing cold, the burning heat and the pouring down rain, they’re out there, come what may,” Euker said. “They’re always thinking of us. They’re praying for us, and they’re doing their part to stay connected.”
When the volunteers walk into the elementary, they don red badges and red vests. Parents have peace of mind knowing their students are being well cared for at school, as well as on their way home.
“When our kids see someone in red, they know it’s a Clear Lake Buddy,” Principal Jepsey Kimble said. “They know they’re someone they can go to for assistance. They’re extensions of our school.”
The volunteers presence sends a reassuring message to both children and their parents, showing them how invested the community is, Euker said. In addition, they free teachers up from tasks that took their attention away from the classroom.
The Clear Lake Buddies have been a gamechanger, Euker said. “We’ve never done anything on this scale before,” she said. “It’s really unprecedented. The work the church is doing on their end really makes it possible. And I’m so grateful.”
She explained that the church and the school are both dedicated to building up the neighborhood and setting up students for success.
“We see our school as a hub in the community,” she said. “We want the kids to be connected to the school academically and socially as well.”
The school and church share that desire, Euker explained. The institutions are also the same age – 55-years old – and walking distance from each other. Both the church and school have watched as the neighborhood changed in the last five decades.
“We’re in the same place literally, but we’re also in the same place with what we want for our kids,” Euker said.
She explained that on the first day of the 2017 school year, members of Clear Lake UMC called the school. “They came to us,” Euker recalled. “And they were like, ‘We have an idea. Are you interested?”
For Anderson, having a school down the street was almost déjà vu. Before he was appointed to the congregation in 2016, he served a church in San Antonio with an elementary across the fence. Just like Clear Lake UMC and Clear Lake City Elementary, the church and school in San Antonio were established the same year.
While in San Antonio, Anderson led his congregation in creating a Christmas fundraiser for the school, hosting breakfasts and luncheons to celebrate the teachers, as well as holding clothing and food drives for the children. Eventually, the church was providing eye care and dental services to the students.
When Anderson arrived at Clear Lake UMC, the church was in the process of discernment, and the goals that emerged were to reinvest in children, reengage with the community and reenergize the church.
Around the same time, Anderson joined a task force for the school district, working alongside law enforcement and local leaders, to evaluate the area around Clear Lake City Elementary. “The community around our church was more at risk than anywhere else in Clear Creek ISD,” the pastor discovered.
The congregation decided to challenge itself. What if by helping the school, they could accomplish their mission at the church – helping children, the community and church members?
The first step, Anderson explained, was contacting the school. “We said, What is it we can do for you? We didn’t say, Here’s what we can do,” he recalled.
In response, Clear Lake City described a concern. As a Title 1 school, at least 40 percent of students participate in the free and reduced meal program. During the Thanksgiving break, they could go an entire week without food.
That was something the church vowed to change. Members created the “Big Share,” packing kits of food, three meals a day, for seven days for students at Clear Lake City and nearby Whitcomb Elementary.
“From that, we learned that there was potential for a relationship,” Anderson said. “The goal was to earn the trust and confidence from the school, to let them know that, ‘We’re here for you.’”
The next cause was Christmas 2019 – and Stole was employed that December to head the Clear Lake Buddies program.
“When I came on, the school and church had already begun a relationship,” she recalled. “They had also kickstarted a pilot group of about 20 volunteers in August.”
In addition, the church dedicated a lay leader to the cause, Clear Lake Buddies Champion Laurie Gerken Redd.
Anderson explained that the title “champion” is significant. “Why is it that some programs work and others don’t?” he asked.
The first requirement, he said, is a God-given vision. The second is timing – and most importantly, the third, a spirit-driven champion. “You have to have a person who embodies the passion of the program,” he said. “We don’t do anything unless there is a champion dedicated to it. That’s our secret to success.”
Stole grew the volunteer force from 20 individuals to 75. She helped church members complete training and background checks, jumping all the necessary hurdles so they could start volunteering as soon as possible.
Stole said another top priority is regularly meeting with Euker to ascertain the needs of the elementary. “I’m a point of contact between the school and the church,” she said. “We listen to the needs of the school first. Then, we fill those needs with the ministries at our church.”
Each month, the two create a list of volunteer opportunities. Clear Lake UMC built a process using the software JotForm. The church can put a request out on the web to its Clear Lake Buddies. They sign up online, and Euker gets a notification email. Any teacher who will work with the volunteers also will get a notice.
The program is running smoothly, and Euker is looking forward to the day when the Clear Lake Buddies can return inside the building. “We’re eager to have them back on campus,” she said.
Principal Kimble explained that while the effort started with bringing the Clear Lake Buddies to the school campus, he ultimately hopes that, once the students get to know volunteers, they will be able to take advantage of programs at the church.
For example, the congregation plans to host day camps during teacher in-service. The first one, originally planned for Good Friday, was canceled because of COVID-19.
The church is also considering creating safe spaces inside its walls for children after school. Members are brainstorming options, including perhaps a makerspace, where students could solve problems in creative ways.
Short term wins
“We’re building a relationship and a connection,” Principal Kimble said. “Eventually, our kids will know they can just walk across the street to the church. We want them to have a safe place to learn. There have already been a number of short-term wins. In the long term, we are building a safe place during and after school as well.”
In September, Anderson was selected as one of 15 “Heroes for Children” by the Texas State Board of Education. The Clear Lake Buddies program was recognized for
building bridges of literacy, health, mentoring and friendship with the children of Clear Lake City Elementary and their families.
“It was a high honor,” Anderson said. “It has my name on the award, but it has the fingerprints of all our church volunteers. This award belongs to the whole church.”
Euker uses the Clear Lake Buddies serve as role models, and she often points to the volunteers as examples when teaching about developing character and integrity. Often, she said, students ask her how much the school pays the Buddies for their work at the school. When she informs them that the Buddies are all volunteers, the children realize that motives can be not by self-interest but instead by a concern for the welfare of others.
“When they hear someone is doing something for them, when someone is taking off from work and their lives just to be there for them, that just resonates on a whole different level,” Euker said.
Stole said that the smile on the children’s faces, the relief provided for the faculty and staff, are most rewarding for the volunteers. “They have a big heart for what they do,” she said.
Stole also loves the job of empowering the Clear Lake Buddies to help as much as possible “For the first time in years, work does not feel like work at all,” she said. “It’s just meeting the needs of people.”
Anderson says that all churches can serve their neighborhoods in unique ways. “Find what your church is best at and where the need is greatest in the community,” he said. “Look for your church’s greatest strength and what is most neglected. The model is being sensitive to what you can do the best.”
Then see if there’s a champion waiting in the pews who would be ideal to take on the cause, Anderson added. He compared a spiritual champion to a tiger. “That means, I open the door for them and get out of the way,” he said with a smile. “You don’t have to defend them. You engage them.”