Five years ago the members of The Community Church (United Church of Christ) of Vero Beach made a commitment to the children and youth of the community. A partnership with the Indian River County school district was formed and a mentoring program at Rosewood Elementary School was established.
Every Wednesday afternoon, a dedicated corps of 45 volunteers meets with students to read, play games, make crafts and spend time together. Students selected for the program are students who have “fallen through the cracks” – students who do not qualify for any special education programs, but who need the presence of a caring adult in order to do better in the classroom. Some of the children come from single parent homes or homes where families struggle financially and have little extra time for nurturing. Most are children who are not performing well in the classroom.
The following year an academic program focusing on reading skills was established at Thompson Elementary School. Tutors were also sent to the Freshman Learning Center to work with ESOL students. Now in its 5th year, 137 Community Church School volunteers go into six public schools (Rosewood Magnet School, Thompson Elementary School, Vero Beach Elementary School, Gifford Middle School, ESOL at Freshman Learning Center, and Vero Beach High School) and impact the lives over more than 180 students each week. It is estimated that this will culminate in more than 4,150 hours in 1999-2000.
On Wednesday afternoon alone, when county schools have an early dismissal, 69 mentors and tutors are involved with children for 1½ hours after school. Other programs take place during school. In most cases, the child leaves the classroom and meets separately with the adult. In a few situations the tutor meets one-on-one in the classroom setting.
Most school programs begin in October and end in April, although the ESOL program at the Freshman Learning Center begins in early September and continues through final exams in May. Volunteers work with first graders through tenth graders. Elementary school tutors focus on reinforcing reading skills. Middle and high school tutors assist with language and math skills. All tutors and mentors sign a covenant with the church committing them to regular and faithful attendance. The church promises to provide ongoing training and support.
The mentoring and tutoring programs at The Community Church are ministries of presence. By being there regularly, the adult is a caring presence for the young person, which sends a message of worth to the child. The youth is important enough for the adult to come each week. As a result, a bond develops that is evident as the tutor or mentor’s face lights up when the child walks into the room.
In March 1998 the church received the Florida Education Commissioner’s top award for its contributions of time and talent to public schools. The goal of The Community Church is to encourage other faith communities to develop similar ministries.