The first time I went to Wildwood Elementary School with The Chapel’s Kids Hope USA (KHUSA) mentoring program was in 2012. I didn’t feel qualified to be a weekly mentor, so I agreed to serve as a substitute. I was paired with a 3rd grade girl who was struggling in life, and her school work showed it.
“Tamira is failing math,” they told me. I was sure I was qualified to spend time with a little girl who needed kindness and some help in math. After all I am a Chemical Engineer and had already raised two little girls of my own. This would be perfect for me.
I found after a few months that Tamira didn’t need me to raise her. She has a family who loves her. She didn’t need me to teach her math either. Tamira was a math whiz! She just couldn’t focus on the lessons and absorb the information because she was bogged down with life stressors that a seven year old shouldn’t have to deal with. So we talked, painted, read books and planted an iris together.
My family and my Community Group prayed for Tamira. One night we brought dinner to her family, and we were able to pray with them. This family of six had been evicted from their home and had to move in with relatives, another family of 6.
During the summer, we were thrilled to be able to provide a scholarship, Bible and swimsuits for Tamira and her siblings so they could attend Camp in the City. There they heard all about Jesus. In time her family moved again, which took Tamira away from Wildwood to a new school. For a while, I met with her at her new school, but during this period, I was asked to pray about stepping in as The Chapel’s KHUSA Director.
Once again I wasn’t sure I was qualified for the role, but by then I understood that child rearing and engineering were not the only things I had to share. More than anything, I wanted hurting, seeking and lost people to see Christ’s love in action.
As I spent time at Wildwood, first as a mentor and then as the new KHUSA Director, I became acquainted with children and families from all walks of life. I felt the Lord’s hand as we took steps to come alongside in hard times and His assurance that seeds are being planted, and there is hope.
One of my greatest joys is to see other people experience what I have experienced. I want them to learn first hand how through love, prayer and faith, a life can be changed! Mentor after mentor, child after child, others are discovering what God can do through them to provide hope. Here are some of their stories.
Dougie was in kindergarten when his teacher appealed for special help. Charlotte was asked to mentor him. Over the next three years, he adjusted to being in a classroom setting, but his reading did not progress past the first grade level.
Dougie’s behavior regressed along with his grades. Charlotte worked with his teachers and helped as she could. She also prayed daily for his needs to be identified and a solution to be found. Finally Dougie was moved to a special ed class mid-year, and he began to flourish. By year four, Charlotte was confident he would continue to make academic advances.
Charlotte’s years serving at Wildwood gave her a perspective on the needs of other students as well. Because such a large percentage of Wildwood families live in poverty, all of the students at the school receive breakfast and lunch each school day. School is a good place to be when you are hungry, but in some families, weekend meals are meager, pantries are bare and the children are hungry.
In response to this need, Charlotte brought the Blessings in a Backpack program to Wildwood. She arranged for volunteers to sort food and put it in backpacks for the neediest children to take home on the weekend.
This year, her sixth as a Wildwood mentor, Charlotte watched Dougie graduate with his class at the ceremony held at The Chapel in the Oaks. She celebrated this milestone with his family and was humbled and honored to be asked to be his mentor and emergency contact when he moved on to middle school.
Irene first walked into Wildwood when she was in Baton Rouge to visit her adult daughter Vickie. She had been talking to Vickie about her desire to donate “to a good cause.” so Vickie suggested Wildwood and then called me for direction. We set up a time for Irene to tour the school, assess needs and contribute as her heart led.
We made it as far as the first hallway when Irene met Ms. Simon, a 5th grade teacher. She listened as the teacher described the DNA of her class – vibrant young boys and girls limited only by their impoverished environment. They live in homes where furnishings are minimal, and quiet study space is nearly non-existent. They have no bookshelves waiting with adventure reading or supply boxes filled with coloring supplies and excess paper for creative expression. They live in an area of town where they cannot get to a library or enjoy art classes.
By contrast, Ms. Simon wanted her classroom to be a place where students could soak in knowledge, dream of adventure and reproduce information in personally crafted visual displays. Irene listened and returned home to California, but left a generous donation towards school supplies for Wildwood. One year later The Chapel was entrusted with another donation from Irene – for three times the original amount. All of it was “to be used by Wildwood teachers for their classrooms.”
Jake was listening to Hans’ sermon at The Chapel in the Oaks one Sunday when he felt called to go to Wildwood. He contacted me and said he wanted to begin a track program at Wildwood like the one he did at his daughter’s school. He explained that her school had a nice track, good facilities and lots of opportunities for extracurricular activities, but he knew that the students at Wildwood do not have easy access to these things. Most of them live in substandard apartment buildings surrounded by concrete lots and crime-filled streets. They have little access to grassy expanses in which to play or safe paths where they can bike or meet up with friends.
I had no idea if Jake’s plan was even feasible, so I brought him to Wildwood to meet PE Coach Mendoza. Coach said, “Yes!” even before I finished my introduction that began, “Jake wants to help with…”
Through their meeting, Jake began to volunteer during PE to do a running segment with a few 4th grade students each Monday. After a few months Jake sent a note home to the students’ parents telling them their child had practiced hard and performed well. He explained he felt the students were ready for a road race. If the parents would agree to bring the child to the starting gate and register, Jake would cover their entry fee. Five children showed up and ran that day!
Later that spring, Jake was the “go-to” guy for Wildwood Field day, bringing fellow National Guard members to ice down, load up and hand out water all day. Jake hopes to have the opportunity to incorporate running into the afterschool program at Wildwood. He told his precious daughter that he would not have time to do the program they loved at her school if he picked up the one at Wildwood, but he wanted her by his side for this so more kids could have that kind of fun.
Rick didn’t feel qualified to mentor because he had no children of his own. Yet, because he knew there are children all around who need someone to tell them they are valuable, he went to Wildwood. He began to meet weekly with Martin, got to know him better and spoke the truth of his value over him each week when they met.
When Martin graduated from 5th grade, Rick asked me if he could buy him a gift. Usually we discourage gift-giving in the mentoring sessions, but I said sure and wondered what a guy who had no son of his own would pick out for a 5th grade boy.
I shouldn’t have been concerned. From spending time with him, taking interest in his likes and hopes and in his life overall, Rick knew exactly what would please him. “You should have seen his face when I gave him the gift. He was so excited he ran over and showed his family,” Rick told me later. It was gumbo, Martin’s favorite food.
Rick shared these stories weekly with his faithful prayer partner who has been at Wildwood many times but considers prayer as his most valuable role. One thing they prayed for was a better setting for mentoring. At that time mentors and students used whatever space they could find, but none of it was conducive to building a relationship. The busy auditorium and cafeteria were filled with distractions. Hallways and the stage were cramped and awkward. Resources were located in the teachers’ lounge and sports equipment was in a hall closet.
His prayers were followed by personal action, and Rick became instrumental in pursuing grants, donations and purchase options for providing a dedicated mentoring center. His prayers, perseverance and persistence are embodied in the Hope Center that The Chapel provided through Project Generosity, our annual Easter offering.
Rick no longer considers himself unqualified. Now he is awed by the God who considers him worthy to serve these families.
By the way, the iris that Tamira and I planted four years ago is still in the same pot in my garden. It has yet to send up the spectacular bloom it is known for, but it is alive. Every year there are more leaves. I believe it will bloom and be more beautiful than I ever hoped or imagined.