A “Community Changer” for Pattison
In the first two weeks of a new partnership with the local elementary school, volunteers from Pattison UMC read to 450 students.
When the school district in Pattison, TX experienced several flood-related tragedies this spring, the associate pastor of Pattison UMC quickly came to their aid. “With the death of a teacher and widespread devastation,” shares Rev. Heather Velez, “there was an open door for the church to help students and families in our community. After assisting with the funeral, I visited one of the schools in case students or staff members wanted to talk about the traumatic events they had experienced.”
What began under negative circumstances, God used for good, Heather shares. “The elementary principal and I got better acquainted during that process and I was able to ask her what needs our church might help with on a regular basis. Since the students had low math and reading scores, Royal Elementary administrators decided to create a lunch reading camp every Friday as an enrichment activity that would not take students out of instructional time during their regular day.”
Heather expanded the effort to include Pattison UMC’s Rev. Ben Lohmer and about six volunteers from the church, then invited Rev. Phil Grose and his assistant from nearby Brookshire UMC to join the team.
The school proceeded to work out a schedule, identify books, and set up four reading centers in the library – complete with rocking chairs. “Now, every Friday, two classes from each grade get their lunch and bring it in the library for reading time,” she explains, “which means we are reading with at least 200 children a week.” When several school administrators and staff members witnessed the first reading groups underway, they got teary eyed. Recalls Heather, “I saw teachers who had to leave the room because they were so choked up to see the readers and the kids interacting. The assistant principal told me he was touched when realizing this is the way the world is supposed to be – kids having fun learning and people volunteering and enjoying spending time with kids.”
Averaging about 75 in worship, Pattison UMC has invited Brookshire UMC to be a part of this community outreach, which now involves about a dozen volunteers. “We are an older, white congregation in a very diverse neighborhood,” notes Heather, “so this has been a great way to break down old barriers and show the love of Christ by building bridges and building the kingdom.” Retiree Mary Buford doesn’t miss a Friday, and volunteer Jeanna Guzman makes time to be a reader even though she must squeeze it in with a fulltime job.
“A school volunteer pops popcorn for our reading camp each Friday and they have even added a special time for students with special needs to be involved,” Heather adds. “Last week two of our books were in Spanish,” notes Heather, “so the students took the lead and read to me as they taught me a bit of Spanish, which was really cool. The whole experience has been great for everyone involved.”
Successes are evident in the students’ newfound enthusiasm for reading. “The principal told me a little girl stopped her in the hall to tell her about a book – for the first time ever,” shares Heather. “And our church members are getting recognized in the community now. One of our members said a girl ran and hugged her legs in the middle of the grocery store to thank her for reading at school!”
“We are into kingdom building. Investing in the young through this special program is very rewarding and fun for everyone,” adds Heather. “I think it is a community changer and I think it is just the first of many positive connections that our churches can make with their neighbors.”
“The community is realizing that our church truly cares about the children in our area,” she shares. “We are reading to about 830 children every month. The teachers and staff know our volunteers and search us out to say hello and thank you. The principal has begun texting me when big things happen at the school that need prayer. This is kingdom building at its best. Everyone who is involved is changed, some in small ways and others in big ways. Our community is coming together more than it has in a long time.”
With readers being recognized at the November school board meeting, these two UMCs are becoming a part of the team of the town. Adds Heather, “The community is looking to us for leadership and help when it is needed.”
Volunteer Jeanna Guzman knows this story began as a movement to move missions outside the church doors. Shares Jeanna, “The area Pattison UMC serves is in dire need of community support. The reading program is one of many missions going out into the community versus the community being asked to come to the church. “Reading to our young is rewarding for all involved; the student and the volunteer. It's an opportunity to extend God's grace and support to the children, encourage growth through books. It is rewarding to hear a shaky, timid voice growing stronger and confident with every word.”
Jeanna and others of Pattison UMC recognize, “God has called me to invest time with our youth. The schools are struggling to find volunteers to commit to such an investment, to encourage, to love and to support the students. I'm blessed to hear God's calling to serve the needs of the elementary students of Royal ISD.”