School Partnerships Reward Kids and Congregations

What do you do when you're asked to help at a school with no windows? If you're a member of High Street Unitarian Universalist  (UU) Church in Macon, GA (122 members), you make windows.

The High Street UUs are in a partnership with an inner city elementary school which, when they started eight years ago, was desperately short of funds for "extras" like art programs.

So the UUs set out to provide art education. Program coordinator Elise Grey explains what happened when fourth graders were asked what they wanted to make: "Windows," they said. So with the help of the church volunteers the students made construction paper windows and filled them with pictures of what they wanted the world outside to look like—a Florida paradise with snakes, fish, alligators, the sun, moon, stars, and even a volcano.

The windows were hung in the hallway where they livened up the school and sparked other projects—quilt-making and a video made from the childrens' own script. "It helped bring out their own worth and sense of their ability to change their environment," said Grey. Now art abounds in the school and the volunteers have moved on to other projects, including a reading program.

Partnerships with schools are one of the best ways for UUs to become involved with their communities. Most schools, especially inner-city schools, have a need for everything from tutoring to organizing art classes or simply helping in the classroom. Experiences of many UU congregations show that schools are eager for the help.

The Saltwater UU Church in Des Moines, WA (148), offered to help at a school with a high population of recent immigrants, from Russian to East Indian, Asian, and Mexican-American. Volunteers were put to work helping in the classrooms, tutoring students in English, and working with the chess club. The church also raises funds to help buy simple school uniforms and to provide Christmas for some families. Benefits go both ways. The choir from the school participated this year in a Martin Luther King Sunday service at the church.

At the UU Fellowship of Kern County in Bakersfield, CA (61), the congregation is involved in a reading program at an elementary school which includes children of migrant workers. Other members help in the library and the office. The church recently started an English-as-second-language program for parents and also collects kindergarten supplies. "The teachers are appreciative," said Ann Ellis, coordinator.

To start a school program, do the following:

  • Seek out a school in need and simply call the principal, asking if help is needed. Meet with school officials to discuss needs. Emphasize that religion will remain outside the classroom.
  • Go back to your congregation and determine what level of program you can support.
  • Think about teaming up with another congregation to provide a more comprehensive program.
  • Promote the program within the church with testimonials by school volunteers and newsletter articles.

The First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY (778), responded in 1988 to a call from the Urban League of Rochester to help the city schools. It began a partnership with School 22 and expanded to a second school in 1991. "The program was an easy sell, both to the school and the congregation," said coordinator Alan Whiting. "The school did watch us to see if we were dependable and that we were here when we said we would be."  Thirty-eight church members are involved in the program.

The First Unitarian Church in Oakland, CA (272), was fortunate enough to find a benefactor for its program. When church member Joan Poulter was featured in a newspaper story about an adult literacy program, in which she spoke about the need for social justice, an area resident donated a million dollars to benefit a needy school three blocks from church. Joan and her husband Howard helped the church develop a tutoring program which now serves sixty children and has a paid director.

The money enabled them to hire a program director, two part-time staff and have money to support creative writing, art, music, and recreational programs. Ten percent of church members have become tutors. "We need to do three things in our churches," said Joan Poulter. "We need to encourage people of intermediate wealth to sponsor something like this, encourage UU churches to adopt schools, and then individual members need to volunteer."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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