Congregations Offer Hope to School District Impacted by Six Student Suicides

By Rick Wolcott*

Love Perry is a network of churches committed to the safety, growth, and potential of the youth of the community.  The partnership receives additional support from Perry Rotary and the Perry Local Schools, which lost six teens to suicide during the 2017-18 school year.

After each of the seven home Massillon Perry varsity football games this season, Love Perry sponsored a Fifth Quarter party.  From 9:30-11:00 p.m. on those Friday nights, music filled the air as students in grades 7-12 enjoyed bounce houses and played bubble soccer on the stadium turf, ate pizza, and talked in the stands.  On the weeks when the weather was bad, the music and the party moved inside the Community Wellness Center next to the stadium.  There, the youth played basketball, volleyball, spikeball, and more.

Students paid $3.00/person to enter each Fifth Quarter, which were staffed by clergy and lay volunteers from the five participating churches: New Way United Methodist Church, New Life United Methodist Church, Trinity Perry Heights United Methodist Church, Perry Christian Church, and Whipple Heights Alliance Church.

Each Fifth Quarter ended with a clergy-led devotion.

“We want kids to have a place they can go to be with their friends, meet other people, feel safe, and to hear the message that Jesus loves them,” said Pastor Keith Brown of New Way UMC (Tuscarawas District).

A Perry High School freshman, who attends New Way said, “My friends and I look forward to coming here after football games.  I like having a devotion included because people need to hear about God.”

“Only about 10% of the kids who are here tonight go to church.  We want the other 90% to get a good positive connection with adults who have issues, too, but despite them still have hope.  We want the kids to ask questions and make connections with adults who can speak into their lives positively,” said Perry Christian Church Youth and Outreach Pastor Max Baker, whose church held the inaugural Fifth Quarter 15 years ago.

“The schools charge us nothing to be here and we are explicit about why we are here – to share the gospel of Jesus.  We get 300 to 400 kids a night so this is widely accepted,” said Aaron Winn, pastor of Student and Family Ministries at Whipple Heights Alliance Church, part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Becky Evanoff, pastor of New Life UMC (Tuscarawas District), said that participating in the Fifth Quarter is one way her congregation is living into its vision to show Jesus to the community.

“We can best exemplify this by being active agents of change within a hurting community,” she said.  “At the Fifth Quarters we have the time to just be with the kids and let them get to know us. This helps to create relationships with them outside of a church building which can feel to them intimidating and judgmental.”

“This is just one way of helping in the aftermath of the student suicides,” Baker shared.  “We’ve partnered with the school, where they’ve helped us out and we’ve helped give them different avenues to reach kids, give them a good message, and speak life to them.  We’ve got a different platform to offer than the schools because we know where the true hope lies.”

“We have lots of doctrinal and detail differences but the main thing we all agree on is the gospel of Jesus,” said Winn.  “We’re looking to leverage our resources to do things together that we couldn’t do alone.”

“Working together with other churches has created a harmony amongst us and brought together a great mission field of youth that we can reach, play games with, and talk to one-on-one or in groups,” said Melody Sanko, a volunteer youth leader with Perry Christian Church.  “Having the Fifth Quarters at the school also shows the kids that church and school are places they can feel safe and there are adults they can talk with about whatever might be going on in their lives.”

“With everything that has happened in our school in the last year this is a good thing because it gives kids a place to blow off steam and to talk to people from the church, if they wish,” said Steve Walker, one of the members of New Way UMC who volunteers at the Fifth Quarter parties.

“I was one of those kids who was hurting and I was looking for someone who would be nice and someone that I could talk to,” Baker shared with the 300 students who participated in the final Fifth Quarter of the season.  “Unfortunately, I didn’t find someone like that until my senior year in high school.  So if you need someone to talk to, or you know someone who is hurting, that’s why we are here.  We are here so that you can see that there is hope.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.