David Deters, pastor of Alger Park Christian Reformed Church in a decaying area of Grand Rapids, Mich., was saddened when a visitor asked his parishioners two years ago if anyone knew the name of the principal of the grade school three blocks away. No one did.
"It was an indictment of us as a church," he laments. That night the church decided to adopt the local school using a model developed by Kids Hope USA.
Four years ago, Virgil Gulker, founder of Kids Hope USA, surveyed 60 churches with memberships from 60 to 6,000 to find out how many of their members were engaged in one-to-one relationships with at-risk children. Fewer than 20 individuals were. When he asked church leaders if they thought the church would respond with a relational outreach to troubled youth, most answered no. "The problem is not a lack of compassion," Mr. Gulker explains. "These churches lack an infrastructure to recruit, train members, and implement a program."
So Mr. Gulker devised one, bringing 20 years of experience launching ministries to the task. His strategy pairs one church with one school, preferably in its own neighborhood, linking one child with one mentor-tutor for at least a year. Since 1993, Kids Hope USA, a project of International Aid, Inc., has trained the church staff members who manage the program professionally, screening and training volunteers as mentor-tutors. Each mentor meets one hour every week with the same child, working on material suggested by the child's teacher. A prayer partner prays for the mentor and the child on the morning of their meeting. Because the greatest effect comes from reaching children early in their development, Kids Hope focuses on grade-schoolers, especially on first- and second-graders.
The program works. Now when Mr. Deters shops at the local grocery store, kids and their mothers come over to greet him affectionately. The school and the church have become connected parts of a community. The church is being revitalized from within and is growing.
Like all pastors of churches involved in Kids Hope, Mr. Deters is a tutor, too. He is paired with eight-year-old Anthony, whose father is in jail. On a recent afternoon after school, the boy grinned and skipped toward the pastor. It is evident not only in Anthony's smile, but Mr. Deters's as well, that the relationship has changed both of their lives. Anthony asked Mr. Deters recently, "Why do you love me?"
The same afternoon, Andy Ryskamp, also from Alger Park Christian Reformed Church, met for the first time with Craig, a black seven-year-old at Alger Park Elementary. Mr. Ryskamp sat in the tutoring niche created for Kids Hope at the back of the language lab, wearing his Kids Hope sweatshirt. Craig hadn't yet received his Kids Hope T-shirt, but soon he would join the ranks of kids who are not only proud to wear them, but protest when they have to take them off. Mr. Ryskamp, with his arm around Craig, helped the boy through the day's reading assignment, working slowly through the more difficult words. Mr. Ryskamp then tested Craig on his reading level. He read 48 words in one minute, with three mistakes. With Mr. Ryskamp's help, it is likely he will improve. But at least as important as academics is the relationship formed between tutor and child.
These one-to-one relationships keep kids from derailing. Kids who have had a mentor are far less likely to drop out of school, get pregnant, join a gang, or go to jail. "These children are looking for one person to love and value them," contends Mr. Gulker. "If they can't find this affirmation, they turn to destructive personal behaviors."
Gang rituals illustrate his point. To join one gang, the newcomer stands in the center of the members and for two minutes is brutalized in a no-holds-barred attack with steel-toed boots and hard blows. Then he must embrace each of those who beat him and call him brother. As one boy explained, "I knew it would hurt bad. But if I could stand the pain, I would be surrounded by people who would love me."
Many of these children are isolated. One Kids Hope third-grader said to his mentor, "If I died today you are the only person who will miss me." A first-grade boy wearing a metal cross on a leather thong was asked by his tutor if it was a statement of faith or fashion. "I used this to try to kill myself," the boy replied. His tutor wept.
What seems like a minor investment in kids has a major effect. Margo Anderson, assistant principal of Alger Park Elementary School, a school with 80 percent at-risk kids, explains: "Many of them are in a household where there's nobody there when they come home. Nobody has ever paid attention to them before. One hour a week means the world."
Kids Hope USA uses these mentor-child relationships to build bridges to the families of the children as well. Oftentimes parents want to meet the person who is having an impact on their son or daughter. Sometime they are drawn to the tutors' churches.
As a model, Kids Hope has garnered attention, both in Michigan and nationally. There are 23 programs in action now, and inquiries from churches and schools in 34 other states have flooded the Kids Hope offices in Spring Lake, Mich.