Church is schools' saving grace

Connection: A congregation reaches out to the county's public education system to help meet real-time needs.

Religion

October 29, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Bonnie Branch Middle School Principal Kathy McKinley drove into her school parking lot last Saturday, her eyes filled with tears at the sight before her. Volunteers from Grace Community Church in Columbia were weeding, planting trees and bushes, and mulching the front of her school.

"It's phenomenal to see this many community volunteers give up a Saturday morning," said McKinley as she watched 78 adults and children working on the grounds.

Harper's Choice Middle School and the Applications and Research Laboratory were receiving the same treatment from the families of Grace Community, at no cost to the schools.

The landscaping project is part of the church's Building Bridges program, said Steve Girard, a Grace member and project spokesman. The church modeled its program after Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark., and a book, The Church of Irresistible Influence, by Fellowship Bible's pastor, the Rev. Robert Lewis. The book asks: "If our church was to close its doors today, would it matter?"

In his book, Lewis describes the church of irresistible influence as "a community of people who ... present living proof of a loving God to a watching world." The author believes that the Christian church needs to reconnect with its neighbors by proving its love by meeting real-time needs.

So does Grace Community, said outreach ministry leader Bob Aylward, who, with his wife, Kelly, and children, Taryn, 6, and Ryan, 11, was shoveling topsoil and spreading wheelbarrows of mulch Saturday.

"It's easy to get involved in church `business.' But churches need to make sure they're turning their chairs outward," Aylward said.

Last year, Grace sent a survey to about 80 nonprofit organizations and churches asking what they were doing in the community, what they chose not to do and what their needs were. About 30 responded. After meeting with community leaders and government officials, Grace decided to offer itself as a partner to the public school system. In early August, Girard called Paula Blake, the superintendent's liaison for educational partnerships, to offer the church's help.

"He said he had 300 people who could volunteer," Blake said. The school system asked for help with outside work, an area of low priority in the budget. About 10 principals responded to Blake's e-mail query for landscaping by Sept. 3.

The church, at 9180 Rumsey Road, looked at obvious landscaping needs at schools that were relatively close to the church's members. In keeping with the Building Bridges' vision, Girard said that the committee also considered the potential for long-term partnership opportunities at each school.

Girard and other Grace volunteers, including Nathan Bowers, owner of Premier Lawn Service and Discount Mulch, met with principals and narrowed the project to three schools. Bowers created low-maintenance designs and provided more than $7,000 in plants, trees and other materials at cost to the church for the job. Grace volunteers brought tools, food and strong backs. The church also provided a medical professional at each site.

At each school, volunteers created new garden beds and removed weeds, dead plants, trees and old mulch. They planted ornamental grasses, Burning Bushes, Japanese maple and holly trees, laurel and pear trees, and weeping yews. Volunteers also laid down weed-control fabric in the garden beds and spread new mulch. At Bonnie Branch, they designed a small flagstone courtyard around a new tree and created a flagstone walkway from the school's band room door to the sidewalk.

The school system has several partnerships with churches, mostly for mentoring, Blake said. "But nothing like this. I've never seen a force like that working together for one partnership event," she said. "It shows so much community good will out of this organization."

"This is goosebumps stuff," said Girard, looking around at his friends busy at work, "just because they want to come out and love people."

Girard, the former owner of Bagel Bin, sold his business so that he and his wife could concentrate on helping in the community. With Building Bridges, the entrepreneur said, he hopes that more churches will catch the vision to serve the families of Howard County.

That is also the desire of Stephen Wallis, principal of Harper's Choice Middle School.

"It was simply wonderful and so well done," said Wallis about his school's new look. He sees the event as a catalyst to get the community involved in his school. He said he has a long list of opportunities just waiting for volunteers.

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