By Brett Hetherington*
How do you connect students with resources and tutoring within their school district when their schools are closed due to a pandemic? If you are Neal Nelson, executive administrator of Catalyst Ministry, you start thinking outside of the box.
“Before the shutdown our volunteers were providing over 50 hours of in-school tutoring,” Nelson said while describing the strong relationship that Catalyst shares with the Painesville City Local School District.
This relationship has allowed Catalyst to become a pillar of support, connecting churches with the communities around them. In Painesville, area several churches – including at least three United Methodist churches – donate time, money and resources to support Catalyst’s mission of connection.
“Catalyst is always coming to us and presenting us with opportunities to partner with them in reaching the community and we always want to be able to say, ‘yes,’” said the Rev. Quincy Wheeler, associate pastor of Mentor United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District). He shared that Catalyst has many relationships with individuals within the Mentor UMC congregation and that several individuals are involved in Catalyst’s weekly tutoring program.
“In the time leading up to spring break we were helping to assemble supplies for students who were in need of them,” Nelson shared. Initially the list of students in need was approximately 60, and they lacked supplies such as scissors and glue for younger grades, and composition books for older grades among other varied supplies.
“We were getting them ready to give away when the kids got back from spring break. And then they didn’t come back from spring break.”
During the current pandemic, Catalyst has been operating largely as a supply partner, providing school supplies to students in need, coffee and hot chocolate to volunteers on school meal distribution days, and continuing to provide simple items such as shoes and socks for students.
The shutdown of the school district has left Catalyst volunteers in unfamiliar territory. Volunteers for the tutoring program are asked to commit to be involved throughout the entire schoolyear. Tutoring on-site typically takes place twice a week and in a variety of different settings, one-on-one, in small groups and even in classroom settings. “The school does not want adults coming in for a couple weeks and then disappearing like distant grandparents,” Nelson explained.
Most of the tutoring that Catalyst provides takes place in the elementary school, though it is now starting to branch out into the middle school, something that the school district is hopeful will happen at other grade levels, too.
One way that Catalyst has been able to support the students’ education is by offering assistance with the school district’s mobile WiFi hotspot program.
“With libraries being closed, students who used to go use their internet access to get their schoolwork done have no way to get their work done,” Nelson shared while describing that the school district is now providing a few mobile hotspots in areas around the community where students can come, be in range of the signal and download and upload their schoolwork.
One of those spots is right in the back yard of Catalyst’s headquarters and allows for a continued connection with the school and with students during the time students can stop in and utilize the WiFi service.
One idea that is in the early stages of development is a dream of Nelson’s. “I would love to go through the school’s system to have our volunteers online in a breakout room where the school has control, but we can still offer our volunteers to the students.”
That idea would expand on another ministry of Catalyst – reaching out to students through simple handwritten notes. During the schoolyear, volunteers from local churches write notes of encouragement that are left on student desks prior to state testing periods, which are highly stress times for them. Nelson has been in contact with guidance counselors about continuing this practice and perhaps even expanding it so that volunteers can share handwritten notes of encouragement that would be distributed by the school to students.
“These children it’s a tough enough home life for most of them anyhow. Trying to have them work on their own at home is really a stretch,” Nelson said.
The Painesville school district is full of children who need many different things. Students who are grateful for a composition book or a new pair of scissors. A child who simply needs to see that an adult cares enough to show up consistently in their life. Catalyst has been able to connect churches with students in need and they continue to do so throughout this pandemic, offering hope and encouragement into lives that desperately need it.
If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.