Jesús sat on the floor of Ms. Thomas’s office. Ms. Thomas is the guidance counselor at Emerson-Gridley Elementary School, and Jesús, a kindergartener, was in time out. Ms. Thomas took a moment before speaking with me to introduce Jésus and me to each other. Evidently, the teacher had needed a few moments of class sans Jesús, who was spending some quality time with Ms. Thomas, coloring and doing puzzles. Jesús was a bit disheveled, a bit loud, and looked like he might be a handful in class. But he was exactly why I was here.
The Cathedral of St. Paul has made a concerted effort in the past few years to learn about our neighbors. We have taken an active role in the Our West Bayfront organization, participated in the Neighborhood Night Out, hosted city planning meetings, hosted the Sunday Supper Outreach dinner, and, of course, we continue to house a busy Food Pantry. We’ve taken steps not only to become more aware of what’s going on in our small part of the world but also to partner with those working to make it better. In this spirit, it seemed only fitting to contact our neighborhood city school, Emerson-Gridley Elementary.
And that brings me to that day last May when I sat in Ms. Thomas’s office with Jesús. I had contacted Ms. Thomas to talk about the Adopt-A-School program and was very excited to see how we could support them.
Emerson-Gridley lies in one of Erie’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Some families are refugees. Many breadwinners work minimum-wage jobs. Many live below the poverty line. What we wished as a Cathedral to provide through this new partnership was a source of consistent support for these folks through their children’s school, through teachers and school staff who have knowledge of how we might best help residents of this neighborhood. Our neighborhood. Ms. Thomas and I decided the best course of action would be for the Cathedral to partner specifically with the First Grade class.
Over the summer we gathered crayons, flash cards and donated toward the purchase of 125 red polo shirts. The response was tremendous. Our Cathedral folks were eager to support this new partnership, and before long the floor of my office
was filled with boxes of school supplies. After service one Sunday late in August, we packed 125 gifts bags with the supplies and a shirt, as well as a brief note of encouragement for each child.
A Cathedral posse arrived at Emerson-Gridley’s back entrance on September 2. There were 5 of us – myself; Cass Shimek, administrator; Dean and Sharon Downey; and Beth Weddington, member and volunteer – many more than were needed for the job, but we all wished to share in the joy of bringing these small gifts and meet some new friends. Ms. Thomas took the time to introduce us to the First-grade teachers and students, stopping in each classroom to show the children what was in each bag and encouraging a warm “thank you!” in response. At one point, I was wishing there was something a bit more exciting in the bags – maybe a yo-yo or candy bar – but the reaction we got was gratifying nonetheless.
More gratifying, still, was the huge envelope of handmade thank you cards that arrived a couple weeks later. Pictures and notes with sentiments such as “thank you, friends” and “I love my shirt” now adorn a bulletin board in our Commons.
In early October, we were able to send funds to provide school buses to take children from Emerson-Gridley to a concert by the Erie Philharmonic on November 4 at Warner Theater. The concert is entitled “Musicalympics” and focuses on the various connections between sports and music. Emerson-Gridley will receive a curriculum from the Erie Phil ahead of time; complete with lesson plans, games, and audio CD and more. Field trips such as this are an expensive undertaking for our schools as buses usually cost about $200 per trip. What a joy that the Cathedral is able to provide this opportunity for fun and learning through music.
And in process is one of the most important parts of our new partnership – readers and tutors to work with the children at Emerson-Gridley. The Cathedral has 5 members who wish to help with children on a regular basis. Although it has been a lengthy process, I am finally getting all the necessary clearances taken care of for our volunteers, and hopefully we’ll be in the classroom before the end of the year. An invaluable resource in this new outreach has been the Partnership for Erie’s Public Schools. PEPS is a nonprofit organization working to strengthen Erie’s Public Schools by providing financial and community support in five areas: Arts, Academics, Athletics, Assistance, and Advocacy. We have also recently become a member of the All Our Children National Network. All Our Children promotes, supports, and strengthens effective partnerships between congregations and under-resourced urban public schools. Acting as advocate, resource, and convener, AOC nurtures and celebrates these church-school partnerships such as ours.
The work is only beginning. But I do not wish to think of our new partnership as “work.” It’s a joy. A gift. A responsibility. A calling. And a duty to our neighborhood. Our city. To Jesús. To all God’s people.
AJ Noyes, Program Associate, Cathedral of St. Paul