“A church at the heart of the community with the community at heart,” is one that cares for its neighbors in times of need. From the time of learning our ABC’s to learning how to look back at life with peace, St. John Evangelical United Church of Christ in Collinsville, Illinois provides love, support, and assistance to its community.
From Learning Tree Preschool, to Homework Help and Hoops (HHH), St. John’s staff and volunteers equip the community’s youth to be caring, ever-learning people through patience and one-on-one attention. Beginning in 2007, HHH serves youth in need of extra attention and assistance in school. Volunteers from the community, congregation, and students from local high schools tutor elementary and middle school students in reading and other school subjects. These student tutors receive community service hours that count towards their National Honor Society membership. According to Dana Callahan, Minister of Children’s Education and Faith Hall Programming at St. John, the HHH program serves approximately 40 youth during their day program, and 12-15 in the evenings. “Kids who barely are at grade-reading level before coming to HHH will be evaluated by their teachers after our tutoring to find that they have jumped up to the next grade level in reading,” says Ms. Callahan. “Teachers call us reporting that students are even doing better socially in school, just because they could have a caring adult give their learning the attention it needs.”
During the summer, St. John is planning to conduct a summer camp, partnering HHH with the soup kitchen ministry, Spirit of Sharing (S.O.S.) so that the students can count on a hot meal during the summer months. S.O.S. is a weekly soup kitchen that is provided by St. John and 10 other community entities, including 9 congregations. It is completely volunteer-run and sustained, with volunteer representatives from each entity meeting to plan menus and coordinate the weekly meals. S.O.S. is not only a means for a hot meal, but a place for fellowship and belonging for the community. “Many people who come to the meals are not necessarily low-income, but they are lonely,” according to Ms. Callahan. In the early days of S.O.S., people would come, eat, then leave. Today, they come and stay, sometimes for the entire hour and a half, just to meet up with their friends. There are a number of homeless community members who come to the meals, and if they miss a week or two other patrons will inquire about them. “It has been wonderful to see these relationships grow in the community,” says Ms. Callahan. Currently, St. John is hoping to expand the S.O.S. ministry to include a Saturday breakfast, to collaborate with more congregations to make that possible.
St. John’s Community Care is another facet of the congregation’s inspiring role in the community. This ministry is dedicated to assisting aging community members, those with disabilities, and their family caregivers. St. John’s partnership with Collinsville Faith in Action helps to provide community members with transportation to appointments and errands, while St. John’s Community Care provides non-medical home services, family care-giver support groups, and Adult Day programs in Collinsville and Edwardsville. The support groups have proved to be vital to the growth and comfort of family caregivers, by being a safe and understanding environment in which to share the challenges and the rewards of being a caregiver. The Adult Day program is a place where older adults can be active and social; combating the isolation that advanced age or memory loss often yields. When asked about the effects that the program has had on individuals, Nancy Berry, Executive Director of St. John’s Community Care, responded that it “gives them a reason to live again because they have a place to go where they are valued.” Adults go home with new stories, new jokes, and new crafts to share with their families.
St. John relies on its volunteers in all facets of its services, and truly believes that each volunteer is called to do specific work in God’s kingdom. So how does St. John attract all of these volunteers, and keep them—some serving for 15 years? According to Ms. Callahan, “when you get a volunteer in the right spot, the one they were called to do, they love it, and they will keep coming back.” Ms. Berry also adds that “St. John allows natural caregivers to give care in their volunteering,” through tutoring, mentoring, home visits, and support. When asked about advice for other congregations who may want to work in similar ministries, both Ms. Berry and Ms. Callahan recommend looking out into the community to see what needs to be done; see what services are already existing and try to build upon them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. They also are enthusiastic to talk to other congregations or organizations who would like to learn more about St. John’s services and how they were built, and encourage anyone with questions to contact their Executive Director, Nancy Berry, MHA, at (618)344-5008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nancy Berry, MHA, Executive Director