Loving their neighbors, churches adopt schools in Lafayette

Evangeline Elementary School Assistant Principal Mary Spencer beamed as she watched the kindergarten students patiently wait their turn to choose a prize in exchange for their good behavior.

One by one, the students were helped by new members of the school’s community — volunteers from Evangeline’s neighboring churches — who helped the students work out whether they had enough “Cub Cash” to make their purchases before picking a toy, colorful pencil or other trinket.

Students earn the cash — brightly-colored yellow rectangles — when they follow school rules, and can redeem the Cub Cash for prizes at the Cub Mart.

Prior to the volunteer involvement, the makeshift store was staffed by teachers during their planning periods, Spencer said. That’s changed with the church volunteers.

“They have more time with them,” Spencer said, still smiling as she watched volunteer James Craft, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, bend down to help a student work out whether he had enough money to buy a toy.

Craft’s church joiend with neighboring Northwood United Methodist Church and Living Glory Church to adopt Evangeline as part of a new outreach among the local churches to adopt schools and support the principals as needed.

“We’re all different denominations who have come together to serve the school,” Craft said of the collaboration.

The effort is a result of a faith and character task force created a few months ago to brainstorm ways Lafayette Parish’s faith-based communities could help the school system fulfill goals outlined in its turnaround plan to improve the district’s performance.

The volunteers’ help is offered with no strings — or rather Bibles — attached, quipped Bobby Richard, pastor of Hope Alive Church, during a Sept. 18 workshop with the School Board.

So far, about 35 churches of various denominations throughout the parish have committed to adopt schools as part of the task force’s partnership with the school system, said Bobby Richard, pastor of Hope Alive Church and task force committee chairman.

“People from all different backgrounds, faiths and all areas of Lafayette Parish are coming together to help those who need it most: our students,” said Angela Morrison, director of community collaborations and partnerships, at the Sept. 18 meeting.

During the workshop, Richard jokingly addressed what he called the “elephant in the room” — the assumption the churches want to offer Bibles or recruit new members.

The task force “has not been formed with any secret motive to deliberately proselytize any Lafayette Parish student, faculty or administrator. We don’t need another platform to speak on. We don’t need another pulpit to preach on,” Richard said.

The outreach has a simple focus: to see the school system succeed, Richard said.

“Our faith demands that we love our neighbor, and as churches we serve our community,” Richard said. “There’s no better way to love your neighbor and serve your community than to help foster a great learning environment for our children.”

The group’s goals are to provide character and life skills education, mentorship and character development, family support services and other volunteer resources.

The group’s message to students is simple, too, Richard said.

“No drugs,” he said. “No bullying, no violence, sexual abstinence and … stay in school. Finish school. There’s no other message apart from that.”

Richard said the group is organizing a character development workshop for the schools.

Simply being present at the school to show community support makes a major impact, said Wendy Knapp, who helped Craft staff Evangeline’s Cub Mart on Sept. 25.

“Give a smile, get a smile,” said Knapp, director of children’s ministry at Calvary Baptist. “We want to encourage students, but also be an encouragement for the staff. We’re here to do whatever they need us to.”

The extra help has been a blessing, said Felise Williams, principal of Evangeline Elementary.

When she was first contacted by a few pastors before the start of the school year, she said, she assumed they wanted to offer their prayers and leave.

“Instead, they said: ‘Tell me about your school and the vision you have for your school,’ ” Williams said. “We just talked and they listened. They asked me: ‘What’s getting in the way of your vision happening?’ Just by listening to me they came up with three things they could do — not to make school better, but to support what is good.”

Volunteers also assist in automobile lines, helping greet students and parents, and later this fall volunteers will also play with children during recess to teach sportsmanship.

They provide treats for teachers, too, and fill in for parents who can’t make it to the monthly luncheons honoring students.

“I hate to see a kid at the luncheon without a parent. They stand in for a parent who can’t come,” Williams said.

Throughout the district, other churches are working out ways to help in their neighborhood schools, Richard said.

Craft said that after training and required background checks, volunteers’ role at the school will deepen to include mentoring and helping students improve their reading.

“Eventually, we’d like to offer parenting and English as a Second Language classes for parents who can’t help their kids with their homework,” Craft said. “We live in this community and we’re interested in what happens in this school because it impacts our community.”