I didn’t realize what poverty in our community was like until I started working for Gaston County Schools.
I’m grateful for my time there, because it’s given me a chance to know and a desire to serve neighbors I might have never seen otherwise. And, I’m hoping others at Exodus will get to know these neighbors as well, by serving as volunteer mentors in the schools.
Our school district is the ninth largest in the state with about 32,000 students, and around 60 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Of our 54 schools, 24 are considered “Title 1,” meaning they have been designated as high poverty.
These numbers don’t mean as much as the many stories I’ve heard from teachers and principals. There are kids whose parents can’t or don’t provide them with basic school supplies, like pencils and notebooks. Counselors have told me how they worry about what they are sending children home to at the end of the day. At some schools, social workers have clothing closets or food pantries set up in their offices.
I have also met homeless students who managed to keep coming to school while living in cars or moving from one friend’s or relative’s house to another.
If it hadn’t been for a job that brought me inside the schools, I may have never known these neighbors of mine. But once I came to see them and their need, I wondered: what is there to do? After all, the schools themselves provide so much already: food, counseling, links to other social services. I’ve begun to recognize that for these children, poverty is not a lack of material goods, but a matter of broken relationships.
Take, for instance, the Backpack Weekend Food Program. Last school year, it fed 950 students in Gaston County every weekend, sending home food for kids whose only reliable meals come from the school cafeteria. But they make sure to include packaged foods children can open by themselves, because some of the adults at home don’t take the time to feed them.
These children don’t need something, they need someone.
Material poverty is a problem in our community, yes, but perhaps the greatest problem for these students is relational poverty.
And this is why I signed up for our district’s mentoring program, which matches children with community volunteers for weekly visits.
It’s very simple. You don’t need to be able to teach, just to spend time with someone else. An hour a week, at lunch or playing games or just talking.
The program exists to address relational poverty; its premise is that the stable presence of a caring adult can make a difference for a child.
I have had the chance to learn and write about some of the program’s success stories, but there are rarely immediate payoffs in mentoring. For the most part, it’s a slow and sometimes awkward process of two strangers getting to know one another. It’s working in hope that the minutes spent now might help a child find encouragement to make good choices, to keep coming to school, to see themselves as someone with a future.
For children in broken families, a mentor can be a refuge, a safe place to speak. The presence of someone who hears, sees, and cares can expose the message of poverty — “your life doesn’t matter” — for the lie that it is.
I believe that for the church, serving our neighbors in this way can be beautiful gospel work. It is a chance to draw near like Jesus, who did not administer grace from afar, but took on flesh and became our neighbor so he might care for us.
In these one-to-one relationships, the most powerful and comforting promise of our Savior is one we are able to speak to another: “I am with you.”
If you’re interested in mentoring, there will be an information and training session at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, in the worship space. Talk to Joy La Prade if you’d like to learn more about the program. You can also get more details at www.gaston.k12.nc.us/mentor
If you are a member of The City, you can click here to sign up for the training session
If mentoring isn’t for you but you’d like to help out in your neighborhood school, they are always in need of volunteers. You can talk to Joy to find out more and get connected.