By Lindsay Peyton

After classes end on Wednesday, a school bus arrives at the elementary school in Alto, Texas. Children eagerly await for those bus doors to open and for the drive to A. Frank Smith UMC. These students attend an afterschool program called Kids for Christ (KFC). The church provides space to play and a meal for the children at no cost.

“This is the only afterschool program in town,” Pastor Tim Ross explained. It’s also the largest church program in Alto, he said.

Diane and Mark Braddock serve as the program’s co-directors. They are also youth and children’s pastors at A. Frank Smith UMC. Two of their children were among the first to attend KFC. Diane was pregnant with their third when it all started.

She was in church one day in August 2020 when a vision struck. “I didn’t know what it was,” she recalled. “But I felt God was speaking to me.”

At the time, Diane and Mark were trying to expand Impact Youth, a group for older children. As she watched younger youth gather for children’s time at church, she realized there was a need for a similar program specifically for them. “God was tapping me that day,” she said. “And it was time to start.”

Afterwards, a church elder told her about KFC, a program that had been held at A. Frank Smith UMC in the past, which focused on younger children. “That resonated with me,” Diane said. “There are youth groups for middle school and high school. But there’s nothing in Alto for younger kids.”

She and Mark began spreading the word through church. The afterschool program would be open to youth in pre-kindergarten through 6th grade, starting in November 2020.

Seven children signed up. “On our first day, we didn’t know what to expect, and the kids didn’t either,” Diane recalled.

Mark drove a passenger van to pick them up. There were snacks waiting. The youth played outside, joined for devotion and enjoyed a game together. Then, Mark prepared them dinner.

“I like to cook,” he said with a laugh.

He was hooked from the beginning. “We had so few kids,” he said. “It was heartwarming to go home in the evening knowing how much fun they had.”

Word spread throughout Alto about the program. Children asked their friends to join them. “The younger kids often get overlooked, and this is a place specifically for them.  Diane said. “They wanted to invite their friends too, and that was really encouraging to see. It blossomed from there.”

And now, two years since its inception, there are about 96 enrolled. “We started with three families, and now we have 66,” Diane said.

Mark continued to provide meals as enrollment grew. “For the first year, I was pretty much the only cook,” he said.

Then, other volunteers started taking turns in the kitchen. Leftovers are often boxed up for children to take home. “This program is so needed in our community,” Diane said.

KFC also helps lay a foundation for faith at an early age. Diane explained that often, as busy parents, it can be easy to overlook prayer or set aside time for a Bible lesson. That’s where this program can step in.

“And it’s not just for the kids at our church, but for the kids in the community who might not have a church but need it, so they can grow in God’s word,” Diane said.

Ross started serving at the helm of the church in July, when KFC was already up and running. “I was able to jump in midstream and just watch Mark and Diane’s passion and their creativity, their willingness to engage with the kids,” he said.

Ross asked the elementary school principal to provide a bus and driver as the program expanded. He also helps coordinate volunteers, who come from the congregation and include teachers, parents, retirees and even veterans. Funding simply comes from a dropbox in church, where anonymous offerings are collected.

The pastor also enjoys serving as a volunteer himself. “I get to help out my pastors and empower them – and let them know that they’re supported by the church,” Ross said. “They’ve just done a phenomenal job.”

He added that Diane, who is from Alto and her parents from Mexico, assists Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents. “It opens up doors,” he said. “It shows the families and the kids that they are welcomed here. Culture and diversity are welcome here.”

Often a parent will ask him, “Can my child come to church?”

“How many pastors are asked that question? And it’s all because two volunteers had a tugging in their hearts,” Ross said. “This is what Mark and Diane have done.