Ministry Spotlight - Saturday Cereal Feature
Pews in the former Eloise United Methodist Church are a great place for younger children to color during "Cereal Saturday." St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven, Fla., provides the ministry at its satellite site.
Volunteers hadn't planned to talk about suicide that Saturday morning. They had wanted to focus on other topics, but during the week, one child had talked about committing suicide. Others, they knew, were struggling with parents who were addicted to alcohol or drugs.
So they gathered with the older children in the altar area of the sanctuary and spent their study time talking about the devastating effects of suicide and addiction. They also encouraged each other to have faith and do what they can to help their family members.
Such important discussions—although not always so critical—take place often at the former Eloise United Methodist Church, located in a rural area near Winter Haven, Fla.
About 35 children, ages 3 to 12, gather there every Saturday from 10 a.m. until noon to learn about God and grow in their faith.
"They talk about what happens on the news, about wars and violence. Even though they are young, they understand it," Adrianna Ventura says. "We'll go through the Bible, and l use the stories they can relate to and understand ... (to help them) have faith and to have hope."
It's part of the children's ministry at St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven. Ventura is the children's ministry director.
Children readily share joys and concerns when the 'Cereal Saturday' children and volunteers gather for worship. 'Cereal Saturday' is a ministry of St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven, Fla.
In 2011, church leaders and members decided to strengthen the children's ministry at the St. John's campus. They also committed resources and volunteers to developing a children's ministry at the Eloise site, which became a satellite of the Winter Haven congregation about seven years ago.
When volunteers didn't know where to begin in Eloise, they looked to the local school for help.
Administrators confirmed there were plenty of children in the neighborhood, mostly Hispanic, with 500 students enrolled at the school. The children faced a variety of issues. Most parents worked as migrant workers in nearby fields; family incomes were often below the federal poverty line.
St. John's embraced its new mission field.
Program leaders decided to start a weekend tutoring program. The school had gone from an A- to a D-minus rating in two years, with low scores in math and reading on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
The school helped identify children who would benefit from the extra help and gave members permission to invite them to participate.
Volunteers from St. John's spent three hours every Saturday and Sunday morning for six weeks providing one-on-one tutoring for 36 kids. Two had failed the FCAT three times and most had failed at least once. After tutoring, each one passed.
The children also received what school administrators said they needed most beyond schoolwork help—food. Students eat at school during the week, but often go hungry on weekends. The volunteers provided breakfast and lunch; the school and church donated cereal for the children to take home.
The tutoring acquainted the families with church leaders and volunteers and paved the way for the Saturday morning ministry, "Cereal Saturday."
Youngsters check in for "Cereal Saturday" at the Eloise satellite of St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven, Fla.
Caring for the soul
A typical Saturday includes craft time and a themed message to "trigger their brains," Ventura says. The latest theme was Jesus' disciples.
There's also free play, one-on-one interaction with volunteers through puzzles or coloring and structured games and activities. After lunch prepared by church members, the children head home with a snack bag of cereal, trail mix and other items for the weekend.
Eight children showed up the first Saturday. Now, the ministry averages about 25 during the summer and 35 during the school year.
Sixteen volunteers do everything possible to help the children participate, including meeting them at their homes and walking them to the church and then back home.
On Sundays, volunteers drive 18 to 25 children and some of their parents to the Winter Haven campus where they join another 20 children for Sunday school and worship.
Ventura says it's making a difference in the children's lives.
"They're learning manners ... and understanding socially how to be appropriate," she says. "We want them to be successful and reach any goals they have. We're trying to teach them the skills to do that, so their behavior improves."
They're also growing spiritually, she says.
"There are some who used to be so scared of praying and now they are so eager to talk to God; they're so eager to understand the stories," Ventura explains. "The first thing they do when they have a complication (is) come up to us and ... say, 'What does God say about this?' They're using (what they've learned) in their day-to-day lives."
Going beyond the classroom
Those lives include family challenges, like the need for affordable health care.
Volunteers from St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven, Fla., work closely with children during "Cereal Saturday" craft and lesson time.
The church had already begun addressing that problem. The relationships "Cereal Saturday" helped build with neighborhood parents made it easier when the church opened Angels Care Center of Eloise in January 2011. It is a free health clinic for low-income families and others who don't qualify for health insurance.
Through the collaboration of St. John's and more than 15 other local churches and community partners, Angel Care operates from the Eloise church every Tuesday and Thursday evening. It also offers weekly blood pressure checks and other monitoring and a monthly diabetes clinic and dermatological services. Regular nutrition clinics include suggestions about healthy food purchases.
St. John's will soon launch Project Love to connect families with resources, including legal and education services, parenting classes and job placement opportunities. A woman who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 35 years will lead that effort, Ventura said. She'll also support "Cereal Saturday" and the health clinic.
"She knows all of the families ... she has a comfort level here. People trust her," Ventura said. "Anything they need, her goal is to help them find that."
Ventura has goals, too. She and volunteers are returning to the community to work with the school and invite more children to "Cereal Saturday" and the seasonal tutoring program. She hopes at least 20 more children accept the invitation.
Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.