|Pastor Mark Gerdes with his wife, Mindy (right), and the church's Kids Hope USA mentoring program coordinator, Donna Larson.|
What can a small church do to radically change lives? At Ionia (Michigan) First Assembly of God, where attendance averages about 60 attendees on Sunday morning, the answer they've found is expressing their love for Christ and compassion for people through action.
Senior Pastor Mark Gerdes explains that the church was looking for some way to be involved in making a difference in their community. But, being a smaller church with a limited budget, few options seemed to present themselves.
But then God provided a solution.
"A community member, who has a burden for at-risk kids in the community, contacted me," Gerdes recalls. "She wanted to know if our church would be willing to join with other churches in providing mentors to the local elementary schools."
As the person explained how the program would work, Gerdes knew this was something his church could and would get behind. The program, called Kids Hope USA, trains mentors who then commit to spending one hour a week at the school working with at-risk children.
With five churches participating and five elementary schools in the area, First Assembly became the sole mentoring church for Twin Rivers Elementary School in Muir, Michigan, a nearby city, which is part of the same school district as Ionia.
Gerdes says this is the first year for the church to participate, but they had five people volunteer to be mentors, including Donna Larson, who heads up the program for the church, and seven additional people who volunteered to be the prayer covering for those mentors and the children they are to mentor.
"What's really incredible about this program is that a mentor only mentors one child - that child knows that the mentor is there only for him or her," Gerdes says. "In addition, that mentor follows the child all the way through their elementary years - from first through fifth grade, they will have the same mentor."
As the training to become a mentor takes nearly two months, the mentors from First Assembly are, at most, about two months into the program. The impact is already evident.
"One of our mentors was assigned a child who spent most of his day, every day, in the principal's office because he was always acting up in the classroom," says Gerdes. "Since his mentor has been working with him, the child has gotten to the point where he is only in the principal's office maybe once or twice a week and only for a few minutes!"
Gerdes says the principal and teachers are excited about having the program in their school - with the school board unanimously approving it. As the kids who need mentors are identified, the principal contacts the church. The kids, as they learn to trust in the consistency and caring of the mentors, are seeing their lives transformed.
"For many of these kids, the mentor is the one stable thing in a life filled with instability," Gerdes says. "When the child learns that the mentor is here 'just for me,' that the mentor has no other students, it makes a difference to that student - it means so much - it does something to him or her inside.
"The mentors are also excited about meeting with their child," Gerdes continues. "I'm hearing things like, 'I would love to go back every day.' God has given them, from the very first day, a real Christ-like compassion for these kids."
Gerdes says he believes the compassion for and connection with the children is due in large part to the prayer covering provided by those committed to pray for their particular mentor and child. He also believes the impact the mentoring is providing to the children is being returned in full measure and more to the church.
"I was surprised by the number of people who wanted to be involved in it [the mentoring program] and I've been really excited about how it's making an impact in the schools and our community," Gerdes says. "But I think it's also pouring new energy and life into the church - nothing but positive things have come from being involved in this mentoring effort."
Gerdes says he's excited about what the future holds for the children, the church and the community as kids are getting the mentoring they need and building what may become life-long relationships with people who love them and love God.
But not all is perfect. Gerdes says recently they've run into their first challenge with the mentoring program.
"The school contacted me and they would like to have us provide three more mentors," he says with a laugh. "We're going to have get some more volunteers trained!"