Church, school partnership helps give students hope, skills, confidence


By Kara Witherow, Editor

It’s sometimes challenging for young adults with disabilities to find meaningful work and live independently after graduating high school, but a unique partnership between a Richmond Hill church and school is helping give students the life skills and confidence they need to tackle adult life.

For the past two years, Richmond Hill United Methodist Church has partnered with Richmond Hill High School’s special education class to help students increase their capabilities and gain independence.

Every Monday morning the 16 students arrive at the church with their teachers, divide into smaller groups, and begin their tasks. Some help tidy the sanctuary while others organize the pews, dust, or clean the church’s vans.

The program is part of the class’ community-based vocational instruction (CBVI) curriculum, which helps students learn life and job skills for their futures. Their work at the church builds on what they’re learning in the classroom and gives them real-world experience.

“We work on life skills and job skills so that when the students graduate they hopefully have the skill set to be as independent as they can be,” said Kristin Blanton, a special education teacher at Richmond Hill High School. “We try to help the church as much as we can by cleaning and organizing, but really the church is helping us in so many ways by giving our students a chance to practice these skills in a real-life setting.”

In addition to becoming more proficient in skills like counting, alphabetizing, cleaning, and following directions, students are able to practice their communication skills, their mannerisms, and their manners, Blanton said.

Not only are the students able to learn and hone skills, they have been able to form relationships with church staff and volunteers. The students look forward to being with the volunteers each week and seeing familiar faces outside of school.

“Some of our students can’t or don’t participate in after-school clubs or activities or socialize with people outside of the classroom,” Blanton said. “So to go out into the community … and get to experience that inclusion is a big deal.”

The ministry is one that doesn’t need to beg for volunteers, said Rev. Glenn Martin, Richmond Hill UMC’s senior pastor. Church members understand the significance of the program and are eager to help and spend time with the students.

“It’s a joy to have this ministry,” Rev. Glenn Martin said. “Faces light up when they’re there. We like having them.”

It’s just one of several ways the congregation reaches out to the community, Rev. Martin said, and serves those who are most vulnerable.

“Our congregation sees the needs in our community and reaches out to help, especially those who have difficult life circumstances,” he said. “We always try to help and keep our doors open.”

Blanton says that the program and partnership is a positive one for all involved, and she hopes that other schools and churches will be encouraged to form similar relationships. The students feel welcomed, accomplished, and loved when they’re at the church, she said, and that’s important to her and them.

“I don’t think our students would be as successful as they are without these programs in the community,” she said. “We have become dependent on them because they are so beneficial and so helpful for our students.

“They get so much joy, excitement, and pleasure being there, and feel important having a job and role. It has been a huge blessing. These kids are so special and talented and smart, and this is a wonderful opportunity for them to show that.”

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