Reaching out

BAKER — The expression “What would Jesus do?” may seem overused at times, but at the First United Methodist Church of Baker and Bethel UMC of Greenwell Springs it is being taken to another level.

The congregations of about 50 active members each are led by the Rev. Gene Rives, and on a daily basis they feed more than 500 people through the Baker church’s Community Café outreach.

Now the Baker church is extending its outreach with its recent opening of Bright Beginnings Childhood Development Center, which cares for 14 infants and preschoolers.

“I don’t ask that question anymore because ‘What would Jesus do?’ might mean what would Gene and Jesus do?” Rives said. “What I try to say is, ‘What is Jesus doing now and where can I go join him?’ That’s what we do here. That’s how these ministries come about.

“We tried to open a child care center here twice and failed miserably because that is what we wanted to do,” Rives said. “Then all of a sudden this (Bright Beginnings) lays itself before us.”

Bright Beginnings is a faith-based, for-profit childhood development center owned by Stacey and Chris Betz, and is modeled after their 78-student Zachary center that’s rated four stars by the Louisiana Quality Start Standards.

The Baker center opened in late September in First United Methodist’s freshly painted and renovated Sunday School classrooms. It employs five certified teachers.

Renovating dingy classrooms to bright lemon, lavender, green and blue, was performed by dozens of volunteers from various civic and youth groups. A digital audio and video security system watches the entire facility and new furniture, cribs, mats, books and toys fill the carpeted and comfortable, sun-splashed rooms.

Both Rives and Betz are planning for more children and to expand from the current six rooms to five more down the hall. The need is great, they said, and they may soon be caring for the children of girls at nearby Baker High School.

“We both believe children deserve nothing less than first-class treatment. That’s what the Bible says,” Stacey Betz said. “During the interview process teachers are asked, ‘Do you feel led by God to work with children?’ If you are doing something you are not called to do, you will not project that positivity to the children.”

The teachers’ daily lesson plans focus on fine and gross motor skills, social-emotional, cognitive and outdoor experiences, such as science and nature, and personal relationships with the teacher and each other, Betz explained.

“The curriculum is basically 70 percent child directed and 30 percent teacher directed. They are playing; we’re teaching,” Betz said. “They are building with blocks; we ask how high is that?”

Exactly how the for-profit early childhood development center fits with the non-profit church is still being worked out.

“We have the same vision. It’s not about the money,” Rives said. “We have to think about this as a ministry, and how do we make that work.”

“Our Zachary center is successful. We are being blessed,” Betz added. “We feel when you are blessed you give back. I believe faith is action, not words.

“This is something we wanted to do. We want to give quality child care to this church and this community,” Betz said. “If it makes us money, so be it. If we never make money so be it. It is in God’s hands.”

Center Director Alison Kirkland added, “The love of Jesus shines through our teachers every day. Our teachers are very loving and very caring. Everyone is treated equally, no discrimination, no disabilities.”

Julie Ann Estep, mother of baby Colt, is thankful to have her son “in a Christian environment and having people around him who love him and who you trust in while you’re at work.”

Feeding the hungry

Every Wednesday noon, about 100 folks gather in the sanctuary to sing some hymns and hear a brief message from Rives before eating a free meal in the fellowship hall. The Wednesday lunch was first held for Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005 and continues to this day.

Kitchen supervisor Chris Betz, Stacey’s husband, and a dozen volunteers prepare the Wednesday lunch and hundreds of other meals each day in the church’s restaurant-quality kitchen. The meals are distributed to a dozen area preschools and private schools, the Baton Rouge Detox Center and the local Meals on Wheels.

“We are truly amazed. We started with nothing,” said Ron Stott, a longtime church member and crucial volunteer from the first days after Hurricane Katrina. “John Folse was a big help to supply food for the schools and everything. We’re an older congregation. We’re just thankful for the volunteers.”

Charlie Toler, 81, and his wife Marie, 82, Baker UMC members for 45 years, publish the church’s “The Flame” newsletter and host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“God just provides it all,” Charlie Toler said. “We don’t know how.”

Rives said they are constantly amazed at how everything works out. For example, they never charge a set price and when they catered a wedding reception, “I expected about $2,000 but they gave us a check for $10,000,” he said with a big smile.

“There is a great need in this community for the things that we do,” Rives said. “This is not about First United Methodist Church. We don’t see ourselves as anything other than a vital part of the community. We really feel that’s our calling. Even though we don’t have many people, the people we do have are incredibly dedicated.”