Black Churches Put 'Spirit' Into Children's Afternoons

Kids get spiritual lessons, tutoring after school

At 3:30 in the afternoon, Howard Terry knows what his 20 children are doing. In the basement of one of three houses owned by the Mt. Horeb Baptist Church, all are saying their names one by one in a traditional African "welcome circle" and singing, "I love the Lord."

Mr. Terry is the church sparkplug and tireless coordinator for Project SPIRIT, an after-school tutorial and life-skills program created by the Congress of National Black Churches (CNBC) for inner-city children ages 6 to 12.

As drugs and violence have become more commonplace in cities over the last decade, many black churches - traditional cornerstones for black communities - have stepped forward to offer children a safe learning haven. About 45 churches in 12 American cities offer the CNBC program.

"In addition to a spiritual experience," says Pastor Delmas Cooper of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church, "we saw the need in our community for children to be off the streets in the after-school hours. In my 8-1/2 years here as pastor, more crime and drugs now exist in this community than ever before," he says, adding that the rest of the city has seen the same increase.

Terry, a retired manager for the US Post Office, and a volunteer for the church, has been known to work on the project and the children for 50 to 60 hours a week. "I want to make a difference," he says. "Somebody has to help them. A lot of people pay lip service, but I'll be out here being a father image to some of the kids who don't have fathers in the home, and visiting schools and parents."

CNBC, a voluntary, nonprofit organization, provides a Project SPIRIT curriculum and training for churches. Both are designed to help build self--esteem in children, provide cultural appreciation, and bolster a child's capacity to do well in life and in school. SPIRIT is an acronym for Strength, Perseverance, Imagination, Responsibility, Integrity, and Talent.

The cost to the church is $450 for the SPIRIT curriculum and from $500 to $1,000 for training depending on the number of people trained. Some churches are partially funded by local businesses, social agencies, police departments, and the United Way.

Terry hired a teacher and a program assistant for Mt. Horeb. A few volunteers have added their help, but more are needed. Even though, after a year, the program has helped many children to improve in school, both Pastor Cooper and Terry expressed concern over the church's ability to continue to support the program.

"Funding sources have not appeared to the level we would like," Terry says.

Almost all of the 25 children from lower- and middle-income families in the program are not members of the church, and the program is therefore less "visible" to the church's 1,100 or so members.

"Churches are not traditionally structured to provide this level of service," says Jewell Dassance, CNBC's director of Black Family Programs, "so we help them to implement this program. We have learned that churches have to develop an infrastructure and resources to support their effort."

At Mt. Horeb, the children are greeted each afternoon with a nutritious snack, then join the "welcome circle" with greetings and pledges, followed by help with their homework, reading, math games, watching inspirational videos, or spending time on computers (which Terry obtained as surplus from the US Government Services Agency).

Lucy Wade, the project teacher, says, "We want the children to gain pride in themselves, and one day be able to decide their own futures."

A few of the children in the program find love and support not found in their homes. "One boy comes from a family of screamers," Terry says. "He was so withdrawn that he would barely say his name. Now he's improved some, and refers to the other children here as his new brothers and sisters."

When Friday comes, the children know it's pizza day. "I've got a refrigerator jammed with pizzas," says Terry, "enough for two slices per kid if they want them."

Joy Thomas, 11, says she wouldn't want to be any other place after school. "I like it because you can do your homework here," she says, "and if kids have any problems, they can talk to people without everybody knowing it."

While still providing help to children through Project SPIRIT, in the future CNBC wants to create centers in churches where children and parents can go for support and training too.

"We are developing a full parent-training component to maximize the impact on children," says Ms. Dassance. "And thereby we hope to change communities in the larger sense."

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