Schools turn to churches as partners in assistance

/ 6 March 2012 / jennifer

Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune, March 6, 2012 –

Faith Community Partnership offers connections and manpower to help students and their families find aid without pew pressure.

Sometimes overwhelmed by crises in students’ home lives, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has asked for help.

It’s been nearly two years since the state’s largest district started working to create a network of faith communities that help with student homelessness, hunger, poverty and other family complications that pose a barrier to learning.

The Faith Community Partnership is an active collaboration, linking 23 churches and 30 schools in the district. About 10 schools have yet to create partnerships, but new churches continue to come forward.

The projects the churches take on can be very specific and pre-planned, such as a coat drive that Northgate Church in Ramsey held last fall for students at Rum River Elementary, or school supply and food drives that North Point Church in Coon Rapids has held for students at Morris Bye Elementary School and Northdale Middle School. They also can be a response to spontaneous needs, such as Constance Free Church of Andover’s work as an emergency resource for Rum River families, providing gas cards, snacks and clothing to students and families.

“The schools are really becoming the community hub, especially when things happen to families,” said Jinger Gustafson, the district’s associate superintendent for middle schools. “I think families are beginning to see the schools as a first contact when families are asking, ‘What do I do if …?’ or ‘Where do I go if…?’ We’re able to really provide that next step.”

‘It takes a lot of stress off’

As the district’s liaison to homeless youth and families, Karrie Schaaf often is the point person for families who have run out of options. Having known partners has reduced the stress and the burden on staff, she said, and has streamlined the process of linking families with resources.

“It takes a lot of stress off, knowing there is someone who can provide us with hope,” she said.

The Rev. Jim Barber, an Andover-based church consultant and member of the Faith Community Partnership steering committee, said he knows the needs of both families and the schools.

“We could see, with the harsh realities of the great recession and the basic needs of students — and I mean basic: food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, those kinds of things — that the school board and administrators were basically hitting their heads against the wall and literally were in tears,” he said.

“There were tears shed by many people because of their lack of resources to address these needs.”

Participants said they have not heard of any conflict between churches’ missions to evangelize and schools’ directive to be free of proselytism.

“I think it’s because everyone is so well aware of it,” Gustafson said. “It’s uncharted territory, and because it is, people are even more aware that we need to keep that separate.”

Such partnerships are not unknown elsewhere. More often, churches will initiate a partnership with an individual school as part of their mission, Barber said.

Roles take shape

The program got off to a somewhat slow start in the spring of 2010, Barber said, as the district and the churches worked to figure out their roles and their missions. Those remain in flux as needs and resources change.

But the group agreed on some basic goals, to “raise awareness and understanding of compelling community issues, and to mobilize people to help meet the basic needs of students.”

That helps participants to crystallize some projects, and to make decisions about how to allocate limited resources and volunteer hours.

For example, one church offered to take on a painting project at one of the schools, Gustafson said. Even if it was needed, painting would not fall under a basic need. The offer was declined.

“We go back to our statement of purpose: Why do we exist?” Gustafson said. “That really helps drive our mission.”

There are other needs, however. Last fall, at an event organized by Champlin United Methodist Church at Champlin Park High School, licensed barbers and stylists gave free haircuts, a service that families often forget to include in back-to-school budgets.

Last summer, Coon Rapids United Methodist Church used a $750 grant to provide a summer fun program for Mississippi Elementary students living in Mississippi View Apartments.

In addition to helping keep math and reading skills sharp, the program included a book exchange, games, snacks and school supplies.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409