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A woman volunteer embraces and elementary aged girl in a large hug.
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Never Underestimate the Power of One Person in the Life of a Child

See how one mentor, one hour, one church, and one school can multiply change in the life of a child.

With one Saturday evening service and two Sunday morning services, I learned how to survive nearly an entire weekend on three venti coffees, four protein bars, six ibuprofen, and 18 TicTacs. I learned (the hard way) to keep the ibuprofen and TicTacs in separate pockets and to look before I put anything in my mouth. I experienced the simultaneous thrill and panic from relying on volunteers; always needing more but somehow getting by, which led to an understanding that the popular quip “Less is more” is a lie. Less is less when facing a room of kindergartners. And of course, weekends repeat every six days. But the kids are worth it all.

Possibly the most valuable life lesson I learned? I say “no” much too quickly.

It’s crazy how certain songs, smells, or tastes evoke memories. One month after I left the church staff to join the Kids Hope USA team, someone asked why my former church hadn’t offered a church/school mentoring program. In an instant before I answered, the phantom taste of a Tic Tac (or was it ibuprofen?) brought to mind an important moment that had seemed insignificant when it took place. While I was in my former children’s ministry role, someone had suggested we consider Kids Hope USA and left a brochure for review. I’d glanced at it and threw it away, afraid to lose volunteers/funding/ anything to another program.

Although that say-no-with-out-really-thinking episode had happened a year or two earlier, it proved easy to recall. Vividly. With a cringe. Big blunders like overlooking important ministry opportunities are like that; they never fully delete from memory.

A Closer Look

Studies show that a child who falls behind in first grade has a mere 1 in 8 chance of ever catching up with classmates—unless extraordinary measures intervene.

Many children today walk through very challenging lives they neither asked for nor can do much about. Such was the case for Ryan, a young boy who lived with a tough childhood and walked through a rough section of Dallas every day to attend school. He needed something extraordinary to take place.

By third grade, Ryan’s reading skills were so far off track that his principal believed he’d likely never graduate…from elementary school. His constant unruliness, leading to frequent appearances in the principal’s office, made her prediction easy to accept. The multitude of clever and complex academic intervention programs so often miss the obvious: Too many kids have holes in their hearts, not holes in their heads. Go ahead and try cramming knowledge into those little minds, but little will stick until they feel loved and cared for and that they matter to someone.

Ryan felt none of those things, but then a local church began a partnership with his school and launched a Kids Hope USA mentoring program. His teacher recommended him for the program, and soon Ryan began meeting every week for an hour with a volunteer mentor—a very ordinary older man willing to share life’s most precious commodity: time.

Cue the extraordinary.

Ryan’s mentor possessed no skills as a reading development tutor. In fact, if such a competency had appeared in the job description, he wouldn’t have bothered to step forward. The simplicity of the role is what attracted him. Rather than worrying about lacking qualifications, he walked into the school equipped with a big smile and a stubborn belief in the goodness of the little boy he meets every Wednesday afternoon. He encourages Ryan to try his best, and he affirms his efforts big and small. The two possess little in common; different appearances, different ethnicities, different economics, and vastly different ages—in fact, seven decades separate them. Yet they share an hour together—and that’s more than enough for something extraordinary to happen.

Fast forward to fifth grade, attended by a well-mannered boy who no longer wears out his welcome in the principal’s office. Instead, Ryan now wears a constant smile. His bright-eyed grin acts as a billboard for the condition of his heart.

During a visit to his school, I had the opportunity to meet Ryan and his mentor. The principal boasted about Ryan, said she lists him as one of the school’s best readers and shared a guarantee that he’ll definitely graduate…from high school. Then she made an unexpected request.

“Please tell as many people as you can that what happened with Ryan is a miracle.”

The Power of One

What many people need most in this world is one person—just one—willing to spend time, offer encouragement, and prove there is someone who cares. Who listens. Smiles. And along the way, who stubbornly believes in the goodness that exists in every heart—young or old. Someone whose simple presence paints a hope-filled picture of how life could be. Or should be.

When that happens, eventually something extraordinary will happen. And yes, it’s a miracle.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t make a miracle happen for yourself. But you can put yourself or volunteers from your church in positions to help a miracle happen for someone else. Who would say no to such an opportunity?

…Um, hand me ibuprofen, please.

A Simple Question

Twenty-two years ago, Kids Hope USA began with a question: What can churches do to have the greatest impact on America’s at-risk children?

After gathering input from sociologists, law enforcement, health professionals, educators, and child development experts, one response appeared on the top of everyone’s lists. Churches will make the greatest difference if they fill the relational voids in kids’ lives. In other words, send people to personally meet with kids who need reliable, caring adult relationships.

Loneliness Today

That was the answer in 1995. It’s still the answer today. In fact, that answer deserves extra credit because experts report that loneliness is a big problem and definitely on the rise.

  • Christian researcher George Barna published data that shows 20 percent of people describe themselves as lonely, up significantly since 2000.
  • Time magazine ran a feature story titled: “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue.” The first sentence of the story: “Loneliness kills.”
  • In Genesis 2, God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Let’s assume that applies to kids, too.

A Solution Emerged

Catalyzed by a clear answer two decades plus two years ago, a program called Kids Hope USA emerged—and it’s simple. A church and public elementary school agree to work together, a partnership typically brokered by a Kids Hope USA representative. The church appoints a program director who leads a volunteer team of mentors. Kids Hope USA trains and equips the director with everything he or she will need to launch and lead the program, and then provides a training course for mentors as well as ongoing materials and a support team. Churches also recruit a behind-the-scenes prayer partner for every mentor. Then the program director meets with the principal or social worker, and they match mentors with kids the school selects.

Mentors meet with their kids for an hour (-ish) every week at school, during school hours. Relationship-building activities serve as the primary priority, but mentors also spend time on academics the child needs help with or special projects—such as building a model car, writing a simple thank-you note, or possibly helping the janitor. Over time—whether short or long—life-building conversations take place.

One Such Moment

Following the application, interview process, and training, Karen, a Kids Hope USA-trained mentor, received a call from her church’s program director that a little girl at school needed a mentor.

This second-grader came to school each day with a downcast face and refused to acknowledge people. Even when addressed up close and personally, she offered no response. In fact, she developed deftness at avoiding all eye contact. Instead, she feigned interest in the floor, the wall, a window.

So just a few days following her invitation to “active duty,” Karen stood at the door of a second-grade classroom, wondering which girl she was destined to meet. Soon the teacher noticed the clearly enthused, slightly nervous lady in the doorway and brought the young girl to her mentor for an introduction.

“Hi, Sarah,” said Karen. “I’m excited to meet you.”

Sarah offered no response. Karen and Sarah walked through two hallways, a silent 35-second journey. When they arrived at a vacant office reserved for them, Sarah quickly sat in the closest chair at the table as Karen turned on the lights and walked around the table to sit in the other chair, her back facing the window. She asked Sarah several icebreaker questions learned during her mentor training. No response. The young girl occasionally looked out the window, evading any and all connection attempts.

A Break Through

So Karen relaxed, breathing slowly and quietly so Sarah would not sense any frustration. Remain in a situation long enough without trying to control it, she reasoned, and room will open for a special moment to arrive. And indeed it did, triggered by a tender, divinely inspired question.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?”

No response—at first. Then slowly, as though dumbfounded by what she had heard, Sarah’s gaze lifted from the table until her eyes met Karen’s. And a single tear formed. Before it had a chance to spill down her cheek, Sarah quick-stepped from her chair and wrapped her arms around Karen’s neck. As she hugged her mentor, between alternating breaths and sobs she described how everyone at home ruthlessly makes fun of her and that she feels lonely all day every day and she spends all night in her room and nobody at school talks to her, and now some kids make fun of her and she has no idea why any of this is the way it is.

And no, no one had ever told her she has beautiful eyes.

But Karen did. Immediately, the two bonded. Over the following weeks, and with plenty of encouragement, Sarah opened up to others.

The Opportunity

Today, over 1,200 church/school Kids Hope USA partnerships operate across the country. However, another 2,500 public schools have raised their hands and now wait for churches to offer a program with them.

A school in Nashville met with a nearby church’s pastor and a Kids Hope USA representative. After hearing about the program, the principal said she had only one question. “Pastor, are you and your church going to show up in my school? Because we want you here, we need you here. It’s all up to you.”

Too many kids like Sarah and Ryan are just one reliable, caring adult relationship away from a new life trajectory. An amazing opportunity exists for churches to provide those adults. Schools want churches to show up. That only happens, though, when a leader decides her church’s heart for children beats strong enough to include kids who don’t attend; when she understands a church’s greatest resource is the love people can share.

To learn more about Kids Hope USA and the opportunity for your church, please visit Portions of this article are excerpts, used by permission from the book Show Up (DustJacket Media, 2016) by David Staal.

David Staal serves as the president and CEO of Kids Hope USA. David is the author of Show Up (DustJacket Media, 2016), Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan), and Words Kids Need to Hear (Zondervan).

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

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