From left: Rev. Christopher Gudger-Raines plays games with children at Leroy Haagen Park. Volunteers Gail Castle and Holli Lorimar organize food in preparation for the lunch organized by Project Transformation staff and volunteers.
By Cindy Haverkamp
Across the state this week, school buses arrived, parents breathed a sigh of relief, and teachers welcomed students to freshly decorated classrooms in the age-old rhythm of Back-to-School. In much of Clark County however, where five out of nine school districts’ doors remain closed and locked as a result of stalled teacher contract negotiations, the start of school is still up in the air.
For many families, this situation poses little more than an inconvenience, but for those dependent on services provided by schools, this is a dire emergency. Schools these days provide a lot more than just reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. In many districts, local schools provide everything from food, clothing, and counseling to housing and transportation assistance to vulnerable families.
Carmela Bender, Project Transformation volunteer and employee of a “Family Community Resource Center” in the Evergreen School District relates that she personally handed out 60 pairs of shoes in her school building alone last school year. When school is not in session and summer programs are over, struggling families have few resources and nowhere to turn to fill in the gap.
Into this gap stepped the Project Transformation: Pacific Northwest team of Rachel Neer and Sean Crews. Standing beside them are a group of dedicated community partners and volunteers who have extended what is usually a summer-only literacy program into the fall season. Since last Tuesday, which was supposed to be the first day of school, Project Transformation has offered breakfast and lunch at two sites as well as board games and puzzles to entertain kids who have no school to go to.
According to Sean Crews, who is staffing the outdoor site at Leroy Haagen Park, they served about 30 families last Tuesday and that number has grown each day. By Thursday, over 70 families came for meals, play-time and community and they were almost out of the 300 lunches packed by community partner, Vancouver Corps of The Salvation Army.
Mom Kelsey Todd, whose son, Jack, attended Project Transformation over the summer and would have started 1stgrade last week, says that Project Transformation has been a life-saver during this challenging time. Jack’s best friend was also enjoying the outdoor site, with both moms enthusiastically sharing that, “People have been coming for breakfast, staying for lunch and playing all day! These kids come home tired!”
Rev. Rachel Neer would tell you that the experience of moms like Kelsey and kids like Jack represents an important part of this ministry to a hurting and anxious community. Project Transformation is creating space for community care. When kids show up anxious, wondering when they’ll get to go to school and parents need someone to talk to, Project Transformation volunteers provide much more than a meal.
Rev. Christopher Gudger-Raines of Orchards United Methodist Church, whose basement hosts Project Transformation’s summer site and fall indoor site, reports that everyone – from kids to parents to teachers – has been feeling tense, and that Project Transformation’s fall program has provided a welcome respite. Gudger-Raines shared that even some teachers, missing their students and the usual back-to-school excitement, have shown up to play with the kids.
At the outdoor site, Crews’ has noticed that the fall program is helping kids get some of the social interaction they’re missing from not being at school. Crews’ favorite aspect of the fall program is “Seeing kids who don’t know each other, from different school districts, bonding over board games they’ve never played before.” Neer says that Project Transformation aims to be “a place of relationship…and help” when community members just need to know that “someone is listening.”
Judging by the crowd and the smiling faces at Leroy Haagen Park, they’re doing just that.
When everyone goes back to school and much-needed social services are again taken over by the local school districts, Project Transformation will follow up with families they’ve met this summer and fall and provide additional resources and opportunities to connect. Popular projects include delivering Thanksgiving baskets to families in low-income neighborhoods and Family Fun Nights during the summer sponsored by Project Transformation at Orchards UMC including free pizza, games and movies.
Neer shared that Project Transformation has been amazed at the grass-roots support they have received during the fall program and is ever-grateful for the many community partnerships they have leveraged through their summer programs.
Project Transformation invites you to join their life-saving ministry to kids and families! Interested? Connect with Project Transformation through their website, donate supplies through their Amazon Wishlist, or set up a special offering at your church using PNW Conference Advance #337.
Folks interested in volunteering with Project Transformation in Vancouver, or in starting a Project Transformation program in their own town, can reach out to Rachel Neer at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sean Crews at email@example.com.
Cindy Haverkamp serves as Communications Associate for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.