Reading program helps church connect with community


By Christie del Amo Johnson, Vineville United Methodist Church*

While his friends are outside playing during the summer, every Tuesday and Thursday 8-year-old Artez Pennymon has been hitting the books, or one book in particular: “Super Fudge” by Judy Bloom. “We’re practicing reading,” he says. “It’s like school, but better.”

Artez and more than a dozen other students are part of the Allen Academy, a summer reading program in the Pleasant Hill community of Macon.  Housed at Greater Allen Chapel Church, the program started in 2009 and reaches out to students identified by school officials as needing a little extra push. It focuses on children in third through fifth grade.

This summer, program coordinators at Greater Allen Chapel were in need of more tutors so they asked their sister church in the community, Vineville United Methodist, for help. Vineville UMC had been exploring ways to make an impact in the Pleasant Hill community, which sits just behind the church. Volunteers from the congregation had already been tutoring some of these students at the nearby elementary school during the year through the church’s Morning Star program. For them, this was a perfect fit.

“We want to encourage the love of reading and not make it an unpleasant task. The children are so dear and so precious. We see the need for support and encouragement that they have in their lives and we’re just happy to be there to be part of that,” said Jan Tripp, volunteer tutor and wife of Vineville UMC’s senior pastor Rev. Marcus Tripp.

“When we live so close and worship in the same community as these children, it would be appalling to overlook the educational need while going about our daily lives,” said Vineville UMC’s associate pastor, Rev. Dan Underwood. “I believe it is essential for our church to reach out through practical means to love those around us.  1 John 3:18 says ‘Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.’ While the children may not be learning a spiritual lesson directly from the tutoring, the testimony of our care, service, and actions speak volumes to those involved.”

For five weeks, twice a week, tutors from Vineville UMC sat with students one-on-one, working on their reading comprehension for 45 minutes, then engaged them in enrichment activities to help enhance what they learned that day. One day they created books based on what they had read, another it was paper dolls.

“Driving up there are four or five kids on the street, these kids are at least here building on something,” says volunteer enrichment coordinator Wimberly Treadwell.

The program also has a tangible focus. Following the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS), the volunteers hope to give these students the skills to pass the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency tests (CRCT) which measure how well they are grasping the skills being taught to them in schools.

“As a former teacher sometimes it’s frustrating because a lot of them are not where they need to be. Most of these kids do not read during the summer, they have no academic challenge during the summer,” says Vineville UMC tutor Patty Oliver. “Having a program like this keeps them on track. It gives them the opportunity to read and gives them someone who is interested in reading with them and, hopefully, review and get much better at some of the reading skills they have been weak in.”

Vineville UMC volunteers say it is such a rewarding experience, often times they feel like they are getting just as much out of it as the children.

“Our neighbors are no longer faceless, nameless statistics, but they are 9-year-old girls with a great sense of humor, but missing the skills of reading comprehension,” adds Rev. Underwood. “Our neighbors are fathers trying to maintain a demanding job and support their children at the same time.  Our neighbors are real people that we now have a real connection with.”

*Christie del Amo Johnson is a freelance writer. She attends Vineville United Methodist Church in Macon.