By Becky Ahlberg
“How did you get all these people to do this?” That was the question of the morning.
We had 165 workers set up all over the school’s campus doing everything from fiber arts and woodworking to a variety of sports, rocket launching, and gardening. It was a veritable beehive of activity with wide-eyed children going from activity to activity wondering what could be next.
How did we get all those people? We invited them to a revolution.
That’s what we called it—“Revolution!”—a new way to connect with kids.
It was a Sunday morning. We met early for breakfast, a little orientation, and some prayer and communion. We left most of our seniors back at the church to pray for us, and we left our babies and preschoolers under the care of some wonderful college students. Then we spread all across the campus at Orange Grove Elementary School prepared for three hours of whirlwind activity.
The idea was hatched in the principal’s office. A simple visit to ask “What do you really need?” led to an amazing day of interaction, goodwill, and just plain FUN! The answer that came back to me that day was not, “We need a workday to clean up the campus” or “We need some major yard work or painting.”
No, the answer was, “We need some enrichment for our children. So many live lives of subsistence: no extras, few adult role models, little opportunity to broaden their horizons and stimulate their imaginations.” I left that meeting convinced we could do something!
For the last several years we have been intentionally connecting with our community, looking for ways to invest in our neighborhood and the families here.
Anaheim First Chris-tian Church is located in the heart of downtown Anaheim. We’ve been here for 115 years! About 35 years ago, the city launched a big downtown renovation, and our historic old building was slated to become a parking structure. We began discussing whether to stay downtown or move to the suburbs. The consensus was to stay.
We purchased land just three blocks to the south and dedicated a new building in 1974. Little did we know how much the neighborhood would change over these 35 years. But as recently as 1990, that decision was confirmed, and the hard work of adjusting to meet the needs of a changing community began in earnest. It meant significant changes in the way we think, in the programs we offer, in the use of our facilities, and in the focus of our ministries.
It has been difficult, but it has also been a defining process. We re-wrote our mission statement and our goals and objectives. We reworked our budget and financial priorities. We committed ourselves to become a church that both affected and reflected our community. It has been an arduous task.
Over the last five years it has led us to a major commitment to single mothers and their families in our community. We’re in the process of putting together a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called My Safe Harbor that can address the myriad problems that affect these families: generational poverty, relationship dysfunction, lack of resources, and hopelessness.
My Safe Harbor is still in the development stage, but we have quickly seen that to meet these families we needed major involvement in the elementary schools in the immediate vicinity. The principals and staffs at these schools are on the front line of meeting needs and can help us not only identify the needy families, but connect us with them.
The four schools we work with are all within a half-mile radius of the church. The primary ethnicity is Hispanic, though the Anaheim City School District has children who speak many different languages. More than 80 percent of the families in our four schools are eligible for subsidized food programs. The fastest-growing demographic in our schools is families with single mothers as the head of household.
Our four schools (and the church) are located in the most gang-infested neighborhoods of Anaheim. There are 26 gangs competing for our children. Those gangs target children as young as 10 for recruitment and deployment in their activities.
Rather than sitting on the sidelines wringing our hands, we’ve jumped into the fray. We’re determined to make a difference.
Our program, “Our Kids/Our Schools: Making a Difference One Life at a Time,” is designed to provide support to the children (and parents) of our community by engaging in special events (Fall Carnival, Christmas brunches, Revolution!) and regular weekly participation on campus with lunchtime activities, classroom assistance, parenting classes, and after-school activities.
Eventually it will be just one of many programs that will fall under the My Safe Harbor umbrella.
So . . . back to our “Revolution!” This was our first one and it was a HIT! Our own people loved every minute of it. We heard such comments as:
“It was so easy to do.”
“It was amazing to watch their faces light up.”
“It was as good for us as it was for them!”
“When are we going to do it again?”
The school staff was appreciative. The principal of Orange Grove School, Julianne Hoeffer, said, “The event provided our students exposure to new experiences and engaged them in activities they would otherwise be unlikely to encounter . . . we’ve been talking about it all week!”
Phyllis Reed, who serves in pupil services with the Anaheim City School District, put it this way: “The positive impact is already being felt by entire families and neighborhoods as well as on the school campus. Our Kids/Our Schools is one more step toward our goal of healthy kids and safe communities.”
We filled the morning with a variety of activities that were divided into three main categories:
• Arts—hand chimes, dance class, candle making, theater (games/improvisation), guitar class, face painting, photography, mural painting, flute/recorder, spinning wheel, and rugs (three choices: braided, hooked, and prodded).
• Sports—football clinic, tennis clinic, soccer clinic, baseball clinic, general games, yoga for kids, and disc golf.
• Discovery—gardening, build a wooden box, rocket launching, “Check Your Health,” pole lashing/knots, cookie frosting (and eating!), puzzles and math games, story time, magic tricks, mad scientists, and Library Bookmobile.
The recruitment question was: What do you love to do that you could do with a child? We got a wonderful response. Some had an idea, and some just wanted to help.
Each activity was self-contained (the school provided tables and chairs—leaders of each individual activity brought in whatever they needed). We designed each activity to be 12-15 minutes at the most so kids could experience as many activities as possible.
The school provided a “passport” that was stamped at the completion of each activity. At the conclusion of the event, children turned in their stamped passports for a special drawing at a school assembly. Some kids tried everything they could. Some found their favorites and went back time and again. The three hours flew by!
Two of the big winners of the day were water bottle rocket launching and photography. Using two-liter bottles, air pumps, and generators, kids “designed” their own fins and cones on their bottles, filled them with water, watched as they were put on the launchpad, filled them with compressed air, and got to pull the string to launch them into the air. It was literally a BLAST! The line was long and continuous throughout the morning.
(The Anaheim Public Library Bookmobile joined us and was parked right next to the rocket. They were so impressed that they have invited our “rocket boys” to join them for their Summer Reading Kick-off event in June.)
We are fortunate to have a professional photographer in our church. He brought his camera, computer, and printer and, with a great crew, created on-the-spot portraits for each family to take home. (Hooray for digital technology!)
We made nice folders that transformed the photos into precious keepsakes. The principal said later that for many it was the first real portrait they had of their family.
We also had greeters and a food crew. The school PTA decided what they wanted to offer (hot dogs, nachos, fruit, cookies, water, and soda), and we cooked and sold it for them—all proceeds went to their PTA.
So, whether it was musical or artistic, exciting or fun, interesting or intriguing . . . or even edible, it was an amazing day of touching the lives of kids and families. And it was so simple to do.
The hard work is ahead. Now we’ve got to get volunteers on campus every day to build relationships and follow up on what we’ve begun. We have a significant amount of credibility to earn and we must commit the time to grow these relationships, become effective collaborative partners, and develop a sustainable plan. But, we’re on our way.
So how did we get people to do all this? We asked. With a vision to “affect and reflect our community,” we have embarked on a long-term commitment. We know this can’t just be a short-term mission trip. This must be an ongoing journey that will have many twists and turns—and surely, some disappointments—along the way.
It is changing our church and will continue to do so. This is not a quick-fix solution. The disintegration of families and neighborhoods is happening at a frightening pace. The problem is so big, it is easy to be overwhelmed.
We concluded that standing on the sidelines made us part of the problem! We know it may take a whole generation for us to see the effects of the investment in our neighbors. But we believe we’ve got to start and we’ve got to be faithful—no matter how long it takes.
“Revolution!” was just an activity. The real revolution will take place as we trust God to use us to make a difference in our neighborhood, one life at a time.
Becky Ahlberg, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is worship and neighborhood engagement minister at Anaheim (California) First Christian Church.