Church helps close pandemic learning gap

Date Posted: 8/25/2022

By Maleri McHam
The pandemic disrupted learning, particularly for low-income students. According to a recent article by NPR, students in high-poverty schools were more likely to not have a workspace, internet at home, or an adult to help with homework. Sunset UMC is trying to close the learning gap for students in their community with a new after school program called Grace Period.
“Grace Period” is an after-school program at Sunset UMC that gives children in the community a safe and supportive space to do homework and grow academically with the help of volunteer tutors, said Sunset UMC Community Outreach Director Christy Contreras. Because so many students were also impacted socially during the pandemic, Grace Period will also be filling that gap as well, she said.
The program was started from a grant awarded from the CLT’s Innovation Lab. With the funding from the Innovation Lab, Sunset UMC will be purchasing computers and other resources children might not have access to at home but will need to be academically successful.
Coming home to an empty house
When coming up with the idea for Grace Period, Contreras said Sunset UMC did research and found many kids at the local schools would come home and have no one to help them with their schoolwork.
The Rev. Dan Jones, pastor of Sunset UMC said Grace Period “meets one of the needs that we know is prevalent in our community -- the need for after-school care with a caring adult.”
Sunset UMC is working with the local elementary school, L.F. Smith Elementary, to determine which children would benefit from this after-school program. Through this program Contreras said, “if we see something that is not working well, we can be that bridge between parents and educators, so we can sit together and talk about the well-being of the student.”
Jones said that through Grace Period the church volunteers and teachers can interact with the parents and students to make sure they are getting the after-school tutoring they might need.
“Most importantly for us is that we want (the students) to associate the church with someone who really cares about them, a place where they feel like they're seen and heard and they can just make an experience in the love of God and have study time,” Jones said. “That’s really our hope.”
While some may say this is like other after-school programs, Contreras said the big difference is the people. Those helping are volunteers who want nothing more than to see the children succeed and meet a need in the community.
“We're not doing it to have more people at church, we're not doing it to have more money for our budget, we are doing it to make an impact on our community and the kids that are coming to this program,” she said. “So I will say, it's the people and the volunteers that will be there who are going to make a difference with all the kids.”
Contreras said she would love to see the community get involved with Grace Period. As of now there are four former teachers from Sunset UMC who are volunteering time to help the children. Others are welcome to volunteer to help teach and tutor the children or plug in with the program in other ways, she said.
Currently, there are about 20 students in the program. Jones said that the after-school program is only just beginning but he looks forward to seeing it grow as new students are added.
“When you're building something new from the ground up, it feels like God is smiling at you, like he has your back and he is providing the resources, he's providing the people,” Contreras said. “He's kind of setting everything in place for this program to start and he's encouraged us to keep working, to keep creating this space.”