Local Churches Unite to Help District 47 Schools Meet Family Needs
Canterbury and Coventry principals and volunteers organize school supplies donated by Willow Creek Church of Crystal Lake for a back-to-school event held in August at Canterbury.
While pursuing a masters degree in Christian formation from North Park Theological Seminary, Kate Norten, a former educator and teacher in Wauconda, developed the idea of creating school/church partnerships as part of an internship served at her local church.
Norten said her initial thought was to partner Lundahl Middle School with her own church, Hope Church of Crystal Lake. After meeting with District 47 Superintendent Dr. Hinz, it was suggested she meet with the district's social workers to determine what needs existed. In February 2017, Norten met with Kristin Schmidt, assistant director of special education, and the district’s social workers. Upon doing so, Norten quickly learned that all schools had needs. While some schools already had a church partnership through Kids Hope USA, a national, non-profit organization that facilitates mentoring relationships with at-risk children through church-school partnerships, others did not. These schools expressed interest in finding a partner, so she quickly got to work matchmaking.
“Churches are aware that families have needs all the time and that this can overwhelm the schools,” said Norten. “There’s no way the school can take care of all the needs that families may have.”
In March 2017, participating churches met collectively for the first time. Churches include Willow Creek-Crystal Lake, First United Methodist, First Congregational, Bethany Lutheran, Living Waters, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Crosspoint Lutheran, Harvest Crystal Lake, Evangelical Free Church, St. Thomas Apostle, and Hope Church.
According to Norten, collaboration was key. “Before, some of the churches stated they felt like islands,” she said. “Now we have this community and strengthened partnerships. If there’s a need at a school that one church can’t meet on its own, others can step in to help.”
Local churches help the District 47 school community in a variety of ways, including serving as mentors for at-risk students, providing food for families, and conducting clothing, coat, and school supply drives. They also support staff by occasionally providing appreciation lunches or breakfasts.
At Coventry, for example, the First United Methodist Church provides families in need 50 bags of food each month, money vouchers for eyeglasses, and Walmart gift cards for miscellaneous needs. In addition, the church has made it possible for Coventry to separate the clothing needs from their holiday assistance program, enabling them to have a clothing drive in the fall so the holiday assistance can be primarily for gifts and toys. First United Methodist church also provides volunteer mentors to the school through the Kids Hope program, which currently serves 20 Coventry students, and a school appreciation luncheon for staff.
Coventry social worker Melissa Karapanos said, “We are grateful to be partnered with the First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake, as we’ve been able to meet all of our Coventry family needs with their support. The church has made a significant impact on our Coventry community.”
North Elementary School has partnered with neighboring St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. According to principal Christina Moran, this partnership has also positively impacted students and families. “Working together to support students through a mentoring program, volunteer opportunities, school supply donations and family outreach is remarkable,” said Moran. “St. Paul’s has provided quick and responsive support to our families during their times of need, which has helped us meet the social-emotional and academic needs of our students.”
Norten says the overall mission for the partnership is to help meet the needs of Crystal Lake families. “Whatever the schools need, that’s what we’re there for,” she said.
The group of churches now meets four times a year and sends out surveys annually to District 47 social workers to evaluate the partnerships. In addition, they maintain contact with Schmidt at the district office to find out if there’s a bigger need they can help with.
“In previous years, churches and schools functioned in silos when it came to supporting families,” said Schmidt. “The church-school partnership program allows schools and churches to work together with a shared vision of supporting the community. The process also streamlines how social workers can access support.” According to Schmidt, the partnerships continue to evolve in amazing ways. “We are so thankful to Kate for her innovative idea and look forward to developing these partnerships for years to come!”
After getting feedback the first year, Norten said she was surprised by the enthusiastic support from District 47 social workers, who said they’d like more contact with the churches. “To hear that, I was blown away,’” stated Norten. “This was confirmation that we were meeting a real need. I am grateful to all the participating churches and for the impact they’re making on the school community. Whether it’s a one-time need or an ongoing effort, it’s been great to see.”