About 40 children gathered in a Newton church’s kitchen Thursday. They sat around three fold-up tables and were ready to eat lunch — their chatter steady as their left and right feet tapped the tiled floor repeatedly. The room was dim, and the only light came from a few glimmering rays diving through the building’s original glass windows.
It was far too hot for any extra fluorescents. Far too hot. With two claps from St. Paul United Methodist Church Rev. Stephanie Wilson, the children’s chatter ceased. The kids clapped in sequence with the reverend. On rhythm. With respect. They knew it was eating time, but there was one more required ritual before they could dig in.
At the command of their Summer Enrichment Program Director Nellie Wright, the children prayed. Their 40 adolescent voices echoed familiar lines that saturated the ear with sweet and innocent sound that, when combined, resembled the hum of the supernatural. These children come to St. Paul’s every day. They eat a free lunch. They learn and play with their peers.
And, as Wilson says, are given an alternative to being on the street and getting in trouble. In its second year of operation, St. Paul’s Summer Enrichment Program teamed with another local church to continue to give kids an opportunity to learn and be active for free. Partnering with the Rev. Vincent Ross and Maiden Chapel Baptist Church, St. Paul’s now offers about 42 children free breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday in addition to the extracurricular activities the enrichment program already provides, Wilson said. The free lunch, which lasts from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for all school-age children, attracted many children to St. Paul’s throughout the week, Wilson said. Because the enrichment program is also free, most of those children who come for the lunch stay for the program.
“We are happy to take them in because we’d rather have them in a church, a safe environment, than on the street getting in trouble,” Wilson said.
The purpose behind the summer enrichment program is to reinforce math, reading and science skills to children during the summer. At the same time, Wilson said the children are also given opportunities, like field trips, for no charge.
“My goal is to not offer a day care, but rather a place where they can learn,” Wilson said. “If the children don’t learn anything, then it is not worth having.
”But in addition to learning, the program takes children on field trips to go bowling, watch a movie, go swimming and take free tennis lessons each Friday, Wilson said. St. Paul’s is able to offer the free opportunities through grants that Wilson and Ross have written in the past year. Ross wrote a grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pays for the food. Wilson wrote grants to other organizations that pay for the trips and additional materials for the students.
Wilson said the free program not only gives parents a break during a tough economy, but also allows children an alternative to ever-increasing crime groups in the area. “A drug addict is always waiting to recruit a child,” Wilson said. “A gang member is always waiting to recruit a child.
There is a rise of gangs in the Newton area, but this is a safe place for the children to go.” Certified teachers and volunteers staff the enrichment program with Wilson, including Phyllis Coulter, a teacher’s assistant at Jenkins Elementary School. “Whatever they throw at me, I’m pretty much used to it,” Coulter said. Coulter said the program helps parents “take a step forward financially instead of backward.” “They are as much a blessing to me as I am to them,” Coulter said. “I get to develop a relationship with them, and if I am going down the street and see any of these kids, they are going to let me know about it.”