Gold Medal Ministry – the VBS Olympics

Creating a Vacation Bible School from scratch may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it! It is an opportunity to flex my creative muscles and work with some pretty fantastic people. It was only a few years ago that I was introduced to the idea of creating my own VBS by Pr. Joie Baker while working with the churches in Sharon and Hermitage. There has been no looking back.

In my last four summers with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fairview, our VBS participants have been superheroes, spies, sailors, and Olympians. This being an Olympic summer, it only made sense to link this great DSC_9851world-wide tradition with stories from the Bible. Using the values of the Olympics and Paralympics – friendship, respect, equality, courage, inspiration, excellence, and determination –  each day we explored them within the stories of Ruth and Naomi, the Good Samaritan, David and Goliath, Nehemiah, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The themes are highlighted in a rotation of daily activities: music, science/art, storytelling/snack, and games. We keep our VBSers and volunteers busy the entire two and a half hours they are here.

It is quite amazing to see God at work in this ministry over the last few years, guiding us in steady growth. In 2013,DSC_0368 we hosted 27 children and about 13 volunteers. This summer, we hosted 55 children and had 27 volunteers! It is
hard to find the words to express the amazing community that continues to be built around this ministry. We see many of the same families, as well as meet new ones, and it is so much fun to watch the children grow from year to year.

I will be honest, as I really started thinking about VBS back in April, my biggest concern was not having enough volunteers for the number of children that I anticipated. It is all well and good to have an influx of children, but you absolutely need the adults to match it. I was overwhelmed by the response to my plea for volunteers from around our St. Stephen’s community. We had members of the church, Nursery School teachers, parents, grandparents, and teens offer to share their gifts with us for the week.  It was a comfort to know that we could handle a significant amount of kids in a fun and safe environment.

DSC_0039Volunteers are the heart of this ministry and, I believe, are the reason for our success. Ministries within the church are about lifting up and sharing the gifts that God has given us for continual building of the Kingdom, which is something that I strive to do within a VBS program. Being able to mold your program to the strengths of the volunteers is one of the benefits of creating your own program. The volunteers have just as much fun as the children who participate. And in the end, VBS is truly a team effort.

While much of our program remains the same, we are constantly evaluating it and finding ways to improve. One of the things that I am already thinking about for next summer is how to accommodate further growth. There is always something to adjust from year to year, but that is part of the fun!

Vacation Bible School is a great ministry that all churches can offer. It is a DSC_9741wonderful way to engage both the church and the wider community. It also brings a wide range of ages together to learn and share with each other about the love of Christ. As I said before, I love Vacation Bible School. It is an important and worthwhile ministry that I am always happy to talk about and share with others.

Missy Greene Christian Formation Associate at St. Stephen’s, Fairview

Love Them

This is a post about the partnership between the Cathedral of St. Paul and Emerson-Gridley elementary in the City of Erie public school district.

I remember it very well, my first-grade classroom at Asbury Elementary in Millcreek Township. I loved everything about it. I was so excited to finally be able to go to school and could hardly wait for the first day. My mother made me a special new dress; my name was embroidered on it so my teacher would know my name at a glance. Our desks were in neat rows and I sat in the front of the room. I remember this because our music teacher would roll the piano into our room right in front of my desk. I would watch her fingers fly across the keys, sparking my interest in piano lessons and asking my parents for a piano.

Now fast forward to this past February when I was heading into a first-grade classroom at Emerson-Gridley to volunteer. I had all of the clearances and training required and was excited about this opportunity. Probably not as excited as anticipating my own first-grade experience, but excited about spending time in a classroom. I have always felt the pull of becoming a classroom teacher, either in music or general education. My degrees are in organ performance, choral conducting and church music, applied music, not music education. At many points in my education and career I have considered adding teacher certification to my credentials. When the Cathedral began its partnership with Emerson-Gridley and the call for volunteers in the school came along, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try.

IMG_3012 (3)So my first day began by meeting the school guidance counselor who took me on a tour of all the first grade rooms ending in Mrs. Steele’s classroom. This is where I would be volunteering. Mrs. Steele welcomed me and introduced me to the class. The walls in the room were brightly decorated. There was a “Word Wall” with columns of words under each letter of the alphabet that the students were learning every week. There was a list of the children’s names on one board. I could only pronounce a few without help. The desks were grouped into three or four sections, not rows, and there was a carpet on the floor for story time. She asked the students to read at their desks and then called on a few children and me to sit with her to read aloud. We worked together to help students sound out words and read sentences. Once she saw I was comfortable working with her students she asked me to work with several children who needed some extra help with reading. We made flashcards and played relay games and all sorts of things to help them recognize the difference in their “w” and “wh” words. I was hooked. I knew my Monday mornings from then on would be spent with Mrs. Steele’s class at Emerson-Gridley.

As that first morning progressed, one student left the room and came back with a box of snack bags for the children filled with cherry tomatoes. Every day the students are given a mid-morning snack of fresh vegetables. They look forward to it. If the designated child doesn’t remember to go for it, she is reminded by her classmates. She always offers me a snack, too. She and others in the room often express concern that I might be hungry, too. The students all receive a hot breakfast before class begins, a mid-morning snack and lunch. Many stay after school for another snack and some for dinner before going home. Monday morning is difficult for them. Many do not have regular meals at home and they are very hungry when they come to school after a weekend. It is not unusual for several of them to fall asleep with their head on their desk while I am there.  There are lots of red and watery eyes looking up from a book or paper as they struggle to stay awake and concentrate.

Now they and I are anticipating the end of the school year. I have been going weekly and have developed a good relationship with the class. Mrs. Steele has given me the freedom to prepare a music lesson each week. We are working on developing a steady beat, following directions, using body percussion, chanting poems using their rhyming words and recently added playing percussion instruments. They love to share their latest achievements with me, “Mrs. Downey, did you know that I….” Now I share their mid-morning snack with them. We chat and giggle about the fresh green pea pods or juicy tomatoes or squishy cucumbers. I love the big smile that comes across each face when I call them by name. I love it even more when they cheer when they see me come through their classroom door with my bag of instruments. I think about each child often. They are now in my prayers, not just as students at the school but as individuals with names, faces and feelings. Some days I leave in tears because so many were overly tired and out of sorts. But more often than not, I leave with a big smile on my face and a happy heart.

The City of Erie schools are stressed. The administrators and the teachers are stressed. And most importantly, the students are stressed. A volunteer’s job comes with little stress: just show up and spend an hour or two a week in a classroom with some amazing children. Learn their names. Talk to them. Smile at them. Read to them. Love them. And pray for them and everyone who works to care for and nurture them. You will be hooked. And you will never be the same again.

Sharon Downey, Canon Musician, The Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie, PA 

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