Sherry Bennington didn’t really know what to expect when she was told a group of church volunteers was coming to her school to lend a helping hand.
“I thought maybe 15 to 20 people would show up and we’d do some light cleaning and spend some time getting to know each other,” said Bennington, principal at Akron’s Findley elementary school. “I’m not usually speechless, but I was speechless when they showed up.
“They showed up by the dozens and they just kept coming, eager to help where we needed them,” she said.
The 80 volunteers from First Congregational (United Church of Christ) of Hudson descended on the public school building earlier this week as part of a pilot program of the Summit County Adopt-a-School initiative. Plans for the initiative will be unveiled Tuesday morning during the Love Akron Network’s second annual awards breakfast at the John S. Knight Center in downtown Akron.
The collaborative effort to partner churches with schools is being spearheaded by Love Akron and the Summit Education Initiative. It is inspired by the Oregon-based BeUndivided movement, which encourages churches to invest time and energy year-round in schools and their students.
“The goal is to get every church congregation in Summit County engaged at a school where they live or worship and to have every school in Summit County adopted,” said the Rev. Mark Ford, executive director of Love Akron. “Often, as pastors, we use our congregations to serve within the walls of the church, but our faith compels us to serve beyond ourselves.
“While we’re focusing on churches, we invite all people of good will who care about kids to adopt a school and make a difference in the lives of the students there,” he said.
Ford will give an overview of the local initiative during the breakfast. The featured speaker will be Kristine Sommer, program director for BeUndivided. She will share her story of being involved at a Portland-area school as a volunteer from SouthLake Church in West Linn, Ore., and how her church community helped transform the school.
Local people, like Sue Wimer, have been making a similar difference at Findley. About half of the pupils in the building — in North Akron, for grades K-5 — are immigrants and speak English as a second language.
“We see ourselves as the hands and feet of God out in the real world,” said Wimer, director of stewardship and development at First Congregational of Hudson. “The partnership with Findley gives everyone an opportunity to help where they can, whether it’s financially or by sharing their gifts or skill set.
“Inevitably, when we give, we end up on the receiving end,” Wimer said. “We are already building some meaningful relationships with school staff, and we hope that will expand to students as we continue to serve in the school.”
Volunteers from First Congregational made a commitment at the end of the last school year to help at Findley, along with sister church Trinity United Church of Christ in Akron.
Since then, volunteers have served in a variety of ways, including providing summer office assistance; donating backpacks, school supplies and school uniforms; serving as greeters during the parent/student open house; cleaning all of the national flags that hang in the main hallway; and providing a welcome sign that includes all of the languages represented in the school.
This week, volunteers assisted teachers in organizing their classrooms, delivered an electronic piano for the music department, thoroughly cleaned the lunch room and organized the school’s clothing and shoe space.
While those volunteers worked at the school, others were busy at nearby Trinity on North Main Street, working in the clothing closet and expanding the community garden (both of which will be used by Findley students and families). The congregations are discussing plans for an after-school program at the Akron church.
Emerge Counseling Services is also joining the partnership at Findley to provide counseling to students and families, many of whom are new emigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nepal, Burma, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some lived in refugee camps.
Emerge, an Akron-based, Christian-centered mental health center, also is exploring ways it can expand its reach as part of the adopt-a-school program.
“We want to help provide a safe place for families to come and get encouragement and support,” said the Rev. John Palmer, Emerge president. “We believe God created us to be whole persons — physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and relationally — and it all begins with someone caring. We want to be part of this holistic approach of helping the students and families of our community.”
David James, superintendent of Akron Public Schools, said he welcomes the new partnerships and values those already in place in the district. He believes that it takes a community effort to help students succeed.
“This is about trying to change a community. It takes more than money to help our children aspire to something greater. It takes love and support, heart and caring. You can’t buy that,” James said.
“The people own the schools and are one of our biggest stakeholders. We want them to know that we are open to people coming in and lending a helping hand to make us successful.”