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Difference makers

"Difference makers" Continued...

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

The Potter's House School

Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 1975, as John Booy was finishing up his degree at Calvin College, his Bible fellowship began praying that God would show them a place where they could serve together. Most in the fellowship were Calvin students; all of them committed to offering themselves up to service as a group. Soon, the fellowship felt called to a poverty-stricken neighborhood on the southwest side of Grand Rapids known as Roosevelt Park.

The fellowship began buying houses in Roosevelt Park, which at the time could be had for between $6,500 and $11,500. Then they started reaching out to their adult neighbors, inviting them for meals and music. Before long, though, "kids from the neighborhood started coming over pressing their faces up against the screen," Booy said.

"We were all white, Dutch, and from the suburbs," Booy said. "We had never met anyone in poverty. . . . We were completely blown away by the need."

Soon the group was reaching more kids than adults, inviting them in one night a week for a meal, Bible lessons, and crafts. Booy began teaching in Grand Rapids public schools and soon noticed that the kids in Roosevelt Park were two to three years behind his same-aged students academically. Gradually, the idea of opening a school took shape. And in 1981, The Potter's House School opened with 12 students and two volunteer teachers operating out of a church basement. Last year, the school enrolled 465 kids. Its mission: to serve kids whose families could not otherwise afford a Christian education.

Each child's tuition is set at roughly 10 percent of the family's discretionary income after adjustments for expenses. That can range from as low as $550 (or $50 a month) if a family is living at the poverty level, to as high as $5,700 for those who have the ability to pay. "Historically, we have turned away 100 to 180 applicants a year, predominantly families who had other options," Booy said.

The Potter's House School is 80 percent donation-supported in contrast to most Christian schools, which are 85 percent tuition-based. Each year, the school's development team must raise $2.3 million in scholarships-a little over $4,000 per child. And each time it expands, adding a new classroom, for example, "we accept the students first and raise the money second," Booy said. "It has to be somewhat realistic, but it's never totally realistic. We're never totally sure where the money's going to come from-we just step out in faith."

In more than a quarter-century, Booy said, the school has not had a single year in which it fell significantly short. The school's primary supporters are individual donors linked either to a classroom or an individual student. But the school also raises money through foundation grants, fundraising banquets, churches, and business donations.

"We have never had the luxury of having all the money raised before the school year starts," Booy said.

Booy still lives in the same $11,500 house that he bought in 1975. He's heard nearby gunfire recently, and three weeks ago someone was stabbed about a block away. But the school continues reaching hearts and minds in the midst of urban struggles. "It's the most powerful thing to see all these people coming, some of them broken, all of them with stories, becoming part of what Christ is doing in the world."

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