Loving Eau Claire One School at a Time
When you talk with James Whatley, it isn't difficult to figure out what his church is all about. "We find things in our community that biblically break God's heart," says Whatley, associate pastor of Peace Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "Then we respond to the need financially. Finally, we look for ways to build long-term relationships.” It’s just that simple, and that’s the mission of Love Our Schools.
At a time when many Christians are walking away from public schools, Peace Church is walking into the schools of Eau Claire, offering backpacks of school supplies, weekend meals, and much, much more. Although the church is making a significant impact in area schools, Whatley says they have an even greater vision for Love Our Schools.
The school outreach started six years ago when a member of the church learned that children in Eau Claire schools were not eating or eating well on weekends. According to statistics, a shocking 80 percent of children attending nearby Longfellow Elementary live in poverty. Another church member who knew the director of Feed My People, a nonprofit food bank that provides kids with weekend meals, brought the need, the resource, and the church together.
Responding Financially to the Need
While Feed My People supplies the food for free, Peace Church underwrites the cost, allowing the organization to extend food distribution to other needy areas. Currently the church contributes $12,000 annually to feed 240 Longfellow students.
At Christmas, Peace sold Love Longfellow Cards, 50-dollar cards that provide a year of weekend meals for one student. The church encouraged members to purchase the cards for gifts and to use the card to start conversations about the purpose of gift-giving, particularly with non-Christians. Another boost to the card drive was a matching grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, promising 50 cents for every dollar up to $5,000. This grant will help Peace expand its outreach to Manz Elementary, another school close to the church.
As the relationship between the church and Longfellow Elementary took root, Whatley went the next step and approached the principal and the partnership coordinator, the liaison between the community and the schools with a question: What more could the church do for the school? “It was the first time a not-for-profit ever asked such a question,” Whatley says.
The doors opened, and Peace is now providing winter boots and coats for those who had none, and backpacks at the beginning of each school year. Then, the church sent Peace Pals into Longfellow to help teachers and students in the classrooms. Whatley estimates that presently there are 50-60 Peace Church volunteers at Longfellow.
Looking for Ways to Build Long-term Relationships
Has Love Our Schools made a difference? Yes, indeed. This sign hangs at Longfellow: Peace is a Longfellow hero. In 2013 Peace Church was named the sole volunteer of the year for the school district.
Whatley, who is involved with the oversight of the program and works with fifth graders, sees transformation from both vantages. The difference goes deeper than signs and awards. Lives change.
Whatley sees change in his congregants, as well. Every year the volunteers gather for a dinner and spend time sharing how they could do a better job of working in the schools. “When they pray about the needs, there are all kinds of things that are on their hearts for the children and teachers.”
“It’s easiest to track material costs,” Whatley admits. “How many backpacks were given out, how much financial investment was made.” Yet the stories are what drive him and Peace Church. “It’s easy to come to church once a week,” Whatley continues, “but seeing volunteers step out and take ownership of their spiritual journey toward growth and maturity is great to witness.”
Hearing from a parishioner, “I’ve been doing this, and it changed my life,” or “Peace is a hero,” from the Longfellow community fuels the passion for continued service. Whatley also knows that there are Longfellow teachers who now attend Peace Church. Best of all, there are those who have come to faith in Christ through the outreach to the schools.
The church now provides meals to five of the 13 elementary schools in Eau Claire. But that’s not good enough for Peace. “American churches often assume that giving money or things is the best kind of help,” says Whatley. “But poverty is a relational problem. We want to do life with people. We want to treat them like Jesus so they will thrive. That allows them to move forward in relationship.”
Pressing toward those relationships, Whatley says the church wants to have a Christian presence at every school. He’s quick to say it doesn’t have to be Peace Church volunteers. They are willing to equip others. “The Gospel comes through relationship,” states Whatley. “The more we can further the relational, the more we can do the Kingdom heavy lifting.”
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