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Homework Central

Children's Ministry Magazine

How one church is reaching children and families -- one assignment at a time

Use this article as inspiration to model your own test-time study hall or homework catch-up help for kids.

"If our church ceased to exist tomorrow, would we be missed in our community?" asked Scott Brewster of Central Church of Christ in Findlay, Ohio.

That question had plagued this pastor so much that it took him out the church doors and into the surrounding neighborhood.

"We want to show our city that we are like Jesus," Brewster says. "We are for them, and we want them to be successful. We want them to know him, but first we have to gain their trust. One way to their hearts is through helping the most important people in their lives -- their children."

As Brewster talked to the community, one man's response of "you could help my kids with their homework" made all the difference.

Central Church of Christ's staff brainstormed ideas that would allow them to serve area families with homework assistance.

"We wanted to make a difference, and the after-school homework assistance program was something that wasn't being done in Findlay," explains Deb Troyer, Christian education director at Central Church of Christ. "We knew that it was something that we, as a church, could do for the neighborhood."

Thus the program Homework Central was created.

Homework Central Structure
Monday through Thursday, the church opens its doors to Lincoln Elementary School's kindergarten through fifth-grade students between the hours of 3:30 and 5 p.m. The children eat a healthy snack; receive homework help; and participate in literacy, science, and creative arts activities. The program is nondenominational and operated completely by trained volunteers. It's free of charge to the families of the neighborhood public school.

When the pilot program began in January 2003, Homework Central served 10 children. By the close of the 2003-2004 school year, more than 53 students had participated in the program. And the majority of those intended to use Homework Central's assistance in the upcoming school year.

"One of the major accomplishments of Homework Central is that it has grown since its conception," says Connie Ferguson, program coordinator of Homework Central. "This has been primarily achieved by word of mouth of the students themselves. Principal [Richard] Dillon of Lincoln Elementary has shared with us that the most ringing endorsement of our program is that the students want to be at Homework Central."

Homework Central Goals
Homework Central strives to improve the student's academic achievement by providing relationships with caring, competent, and consistent tutors. Homework Central also provides enriching learning activities in a safe and healthy environment.

"In today's fast-paced world, families are finding it difficult to juggle jobs, kids' activities, and school and home responsibilities. Homework Central's mission is to reduce the stress and time pressures that are eroding the quality of family life," Troyer says. "It helps when the homework is done and children are getting reading help. It gives families more time to be a family."

The church formed the program with the understanding that everyone, whether parents or not, influences the children within their sphere of contact. Each one of us was shaped by adult influences in our lives from infancy throughout childhood and into our teenage years. Whether our experience was one of joy or abuse, we were affected by it. Homework Central's volunteers have accepted the responsibility of sometimes being the only positive influence in a Homework Central child's life.

"Some of these children come from situations where at times we're the only adult one-on-one attention they receive," Ferguson explains. Homework Central wants to meet the children's overall developmental needs by building a strong sense of self through meaningful relationships with kids' peers and the tutors, as well as opportunities to experience success by participating in fun literacy activities.

Teachers have seen a positive change in students' performance since Homework Central opened its doors to Lincoln Elementary, according to Principal Richard Dillon.

"The students thrive on individual attention, and they come to school with completed homework -- that makes everyone happy," he says.

Homework Central Mentors
Another accomplishment this program has experienced is the mentoring relationships that've emerged between tutors and their students. Currently there are about 30 tutors working with Homework Central -- varying from congregation members, to retired citizens, to local high school students. The students benefit from the individualized attention, allowing them to stay on task and receive immediate feedback for their efforts.

According to Troyer, many children who attend the program come from single-parent families or broken family situations that don't provide children with stable, ongoing assistance with their academic work at home. In some cases, the tutor is the one constant, affirming adult in their lives at the time.

To ensure that the student-to-tutor relationship becomes a mentorship, Homework Central staff works at matching the personality of the tutor to the student.

"We've learned from experience that if we take the time to study our pairings of tutors with students, the tutoring experience is more successful for both the tutor and the student," Troyer says.

"These children are seeing good role models, and we see how it has already made a difference in their grades and attitudes and the gratitude of their parents," Brewster says.

After several months of attending the after-school program, Homework Central volunteers see improvements in the students' oral reading abilities as well as an increase in their confidence level. Students in the program become more willing to take risks and read more challenging material.

As the children achieve success, participating in fun literacy activities and completing their homework, Homework Central tutors work to bolster the children's self-confidence and sense of self-worth.

"It's easy to think of results -- or that we should be improving all the children's grades," Ferguson says. "But the administrators at Lincoln Elementary tell us it is so much more than that; it is the one-on-one time with a caring adult. We can't measure the value of giving these students a better sense of self."

In his book Blessing Your Children, Jack Hayford writes, "Too often we adults fail to realize the influence we have upon children. That is amazing, especially in light of the fact that each of us remembers vividly how the words and actions of certain adults influenced us…Just one word -- whether ill spoken or perfectly timed -- can leave an imprint on a child's soul, an imprint that colors a lifetime of future behavior for better or for worse."

Homework Central's Connections
Principal Dillon feels that Homework Central supports everything that the school works to accomplish in education.

"We want to make a positive difference in children's lives. Homework Central is an integral part of making that happen," Dillon says. "We want all children to succeed in school and in life." As the participating students' principal, Dillon has been supportive of the after-school program since it began in 2003.

"I thought it was a wonderful idea. It had a simple goal -- they wanted to create a fun and active environment where homework isn't a chore but a springboard for learning and where out-of-the-ordinary activities will motivate children to read, write, and create," Dillon says.

Homework Central has gained not only the confidence and support of Lincoln's school administration but has also caught the attention of other influential community organizations. The Community Foundation gave Homework Central $2,000 for books and educational materials through their HancockReads Grant Program -- marking the first time a faith-based organization has been the selected recipient. As news of the program spread throughout the community, other organizations such as the Findlay Service League, the Ohio State 4-H Extension Office, and the Lincoln School PTO donated funds to Homework Central.

"As our reputation of a caring church has grown, we've been invited to participate in other charitable events and programs within the community," Troyer says.

Homework Central Eternal Assignment
While improving academics and increasing the children's confidence are the primary goals of Homework Central, Central Church of Christ hopes that by reaching out to the community they may be planting seeds that'll bring children to know the Lord in the future.

"We're just here to help with homework -- we do not read Bible stories or anything like that," Troyer says. "If families like the mentorship, encouragement, and help we provide and feel comfortable with us as a church family, then they are always welcome."

"Our focus is not to pack the pews," Ferguson agrees. "We want their families to know we care -- we want our name out in the community as a church that cares. Our mission is to show Jesus through action. Seeds that we are planting may grow down the road. If Homework Central brings even one child to Jesus, then it was worth it."

"The Central Church family has already begun to see the fruit of their labor of love," explains Troyer. "Several Homework Central children are participating in youth group activities and special summer events for elementary-age children. Nearly 20 Homework Central kids attended the vacation Bible school program in June, and for the first time, five Homework Central kids will be attending church camp."

"This is one of the most significant and fertile mission fields in the nation," Brewster says. With that in mind, Central Church of Christ hopes to see other churches follow in their footsteps.

Homework Central Example
"Our ultimate dream is for other churches and organizations to catch the vision, and that in the near future they will provide additional after-school homework assistance sites for children throughout our community and county," Troyer says.

One of Central Church of Christ's limitations is that they can only serve children from Lincoln School.

"We don't have enough tutors or space to service all of the elementary schools in Findlay. This is why we hope other churches will launch their own programs in their own neighborhoods," Ferguson says.

Several local churches have already begun working with Central Church of Christ, and others have expressed an interest in learning about the program.

"When God starts something, it has the momentum to go on without the ones who start it. Others are excited about the dream of helping all our kids," Brewster says. "I think Homework Central fits in this slot. Even if we change locations, we will still be able to carry on and others will also."

Churches wanting to reach out within their own community should ask the question that Central Church of Christ began with: "If our church ceased to exist tomorrow, would we be missed in our community?"

To begin an outreach program, define what the community needs are and where your congregation's strengths lie. Then determine how your congregation's strengths can meet those needs.

"It is our hope and prayer that our program will inspire other churches in our city to reach out within their own neighborhoods to meet the needs of the families that live there," Troyer says. "Their programs should be unique to their own gifts and the needs of the families around them."CM

Bridget Campbell is a journalist in Findlay, Ohio.

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