Sonja Samuel’s effective after-school outreach program gives at-risk kids in Dallas—and everywhere —something to cheer about.
Veronica* is a single mom in southern Dallas who’s doing her best, but she faces serious challenges every day. She has four kids and works long hours to support them, six days per week. Her elementary-age daughter, Beverly*, is at home every day after school with two older brothers and their friends, hanging out in a housing development. Veronica’s older daughter works, so she’s not around much. Veronica knows it’s not a good situation for the boys or a young girl, and she worries about what might happen.
Something changed for this family a couple of years ago. Scripture Union, an organization that’s worked for nearly 150 years to introduce people throughout the world to Jesus through a variety of programs, partnered with a small, local church to bring in a summer camp program that ministered to the kids in Veronica’s apartment complex. Little Beverly was happy to attend and also signed up for the church’s new after-school program that fall called PrimeTime®.
Today, Beverly still comes to PrimeTime every week. Rather than having no adult supervision until her mom gets home at night, she now has access to tutoring, mentoring, plenty of healthy snacks, quality relationships, stability, and a relevant message about God’s love for her. She’s also a program helper now. She joined the church’s children’s choir and ministry activities. Her sister, mom, and brothers have started going to church with her. The entire family is turning toward Jesus, and Veronica knows her daughter is safe, fed, and with people who care about her every day.
A Prime Path to Jesus
PrimeTime is a faith-based after-school program jointly developed by Scripture Union and the Salvation Army that’s aimed at children 6 to 12 years old. What’s unique about this children’s Bible outreach program is that it’s been carefully written for reaching children who aren’t familiar with the Bible.
PrimeTime offers churches and other organizations an effective tool for sharing God’s love and God’s Word with children who’d otherwise be alone and unsupervised during after-school hours. The program features a 40-week curriculum (paralleling the school year), with creative Bible teaching and fun activities that complement the tutoring and homework help many faith-based after-school programs already provide.
As the south-central regional director for Scripture Union/ USA, I have the opportunity to partner with churches and organizations whose goal is to reach their communities in need. We’ve seen kids turn their lives around and their families transform.
Six years ago we started with about four PrimeTime after-school programs in partnership with local churches and other organizations in southern Dallas. Today we consistently have 20 to 25 programs that we work with directly, reaching about 2,000 kids in the area. In addition, there are around 1,000 other ministries and churches in the area that have existing outreach programs but now incorporate PrimeTime in some way each week. These organizations take the curriculum and use it in whatever way works for them. Our ability to spread God’s good Word to children in need has risen exponentially in a short time.
The Need to Reach At-Risk Kids
It’s true: We’re reaching a lot of kids through these efforts. But to put it in perspective, there are around 75 million kids in the U.S., with at least one-third of those classified “at risk.” We have a couple million children in the Dallas area alone. That’s a lot of kids just running around in bad situations, without supervision and hungry. We want to get as many of them connected to an after-school program as possible where they will hear about God’s love for them.
Various estimates say kids spend roughly 50 percent of their time at home, 30 percent at school, and the other 20 percent—somewhere else. The question is, where? Our goal is to capture that 20 percent, whether it’s during summer or school time. And that’s really the core of Scripture Union’s outreach to children.
A Personal Mission
My passion for ministering to at-risk kids comes from my lifelong love for kids and desire to see change.
The root of all this started for me as a young volunteer. I was raised in the church and was always working with younger kids any way I could. After high school, I became a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. That role entailed a lot of giving back to the community, like visiting children in the hospital.
When I got to college, I started doing mission trips and traveling overseas. It all worked on my heart. I traveled to Africa, Australia, Mexico, Ukraine, and Peru. I worked to share the good news of Jesus with children in dire need. In Nigeria, I discovered Scripture Union and its focus on effecting real change in communities. There, the programs existed for kids whenever they weren’t in school. They were key in keeping scores of children out of gangs, away from drugs and crime and free from sex trafficking. It was life-impacting for me to see that very real transformation in neighborhoods.
I grew up in southern Dallas. When I was a child, it was more like the suburbs, not inner city. But as the population has grown, it’s now been consumed into the city and blighted by poverty and crime. The issues here are real and intimidating— single, working parents with kids left alone for hours every day, high crime, and an education system that’s lacking. After my experiences overseas, I did some hard thinking about my future. Sure, I could go across the ocean and help kids who needed it. But I also knew there were kids right here in the community I grew up in who needed people willing to love and serve them.
A Life-Altering Message
One of the constant things I’ve seen through the years is kids’ need for consistency. So often the kids we serve don’t have consistency in their lives. They don’t have that one person to depend on. And you can quickly see how important it is to have consistent volunteers. They start to open up. And that’s when we really get to share how God loves us and works through us.
One of my favorite ways to connect with kids is to tell them about Zacchaeus. He was a man with issues. He was challenged physically and nobody liked him. Kids can identify with that. So many have issues about how they look or they struggle with friends. Kids love his story and see that Jesus was his friend. They see what it means to be a friend. And their takeaway is that Jesus is their friend—regardless of what they’ve done or what their issues are. Really, that’s what we’re about—helping kids experience that connection.
When we first started in this area, I was very hands-on. Dallas is a huge community, and we have a lot of outreaches to children going on. There are fabulous programs that already exist that feed kids and provide mentorship and tutoring. I didn’t want to reinvent what these great programs were doing; I wanted to partner with them to ensure we’re also addressing the needs of the heart.
Today, we have more partnerships, more organization, and more trainers. I’m able to be more of a catalyst for partnerships and a trainer. But I still always run one or two programs myself because I want to have my ear to the ground to hear and see kids’ needs. And of course, I still want those hugs and kisses from the kids.
A Model for After-School Outreach
Overall we’re dealing with large numbers of kids in the Dallas area, and it may seem like something out of reach for smaller churches. But the reality is, many of the churches we partner with have 250-300 members. A faith-focused after-school program or partnership is doable for any size church. I encourage all churches—regardless of size or financial situation—to look at how they’re reaching outside their walls to be Jesus to their communities. And I often ask these questions: Have you adopted the school? Have you adopted the apartment complex or low-income housing in your neighborhood? How are you serving the families and children who don’t go to your church? These are important questions.
Small Churches Make a Big Impact
One great example is a small storefront church of 50 that’s in need itself. Despite their great obstacles, they understand the power of God’s grace and love and the power of giving. Their attitude is that they may not have much to give, they may be in need, but they’re rich in God’s grace and mercy. They want to share that with their neighbors. On Saturdays, they have a program for kids in the neighborhood. They’ve stepped outside their doors and adopted a school across the street. There’s an apartment complex down the street filled with at-risk kids. They’re brainstorming ways to go to that complex and offer kids something consistent. Yes, they’re very small and underfunded and they don’t have enough volunteers to do everything they want to do—but all it takes is a heart to make it happen.
Because this church doesn’t have a lot of adults who can volunteer, I asked the pastor to give me the youth. I do a leadership development program where I work with kids starting in middle school to begin placing them in leadership roles. These are the kids who talk back, the ones whose parents feel they’re losing control of their children or say their kids have an attitude. This age is a pivotal time for kids, and I’ve found if you put them into leadership training and give them responsibility, you’ll see a heart change—and you’ll see self-esteem and leadership skills blossom.
I trained the church’s handful of youth and took them into the apartments over the summer. We worked on skills for connecting with people outside the walls of the church. We worked on how to conduct small groups. And I saw these middle- and high-school kids mentor younger children and encourage them. I watched as one at- risk girl told a group of girls how she’d warded off bullies by remembering God’s love for her.
For me, there’s nothing better than that. When a child, regardless of circumstances, makes the connection that God loves him or her, then we’ve done what we came to do. And that’s a reason to cheer.
If you’d like to learn more about PrimeTime® after-school programming or have questions about how you can begin your own program, email Sonja at Sonja@sonjasamuel.com.
Sonja Samuel is an international speaker, ministry leader, author, and life empowerment strategist based in Texas.
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