Calling all churches, time to step up for Lexington's poor families, children

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Several years ago, United Way Worldwide introduced three aspirational goals — education, health and financial stability. United Way of the Bluegrass has advanced those to a higher level, with a Big Bold Goal focused on education achievement and community engagement that is certain to result in enhanced financial stability in some of Lexington's more challenged schools and neighborhoods.

But the charge for the future does not belong only to United Way. Whatever success is achieved will be tied to the involvement and support of Lexington's broader community, including faith-based leaders, business, government and the corporate sector.

"The faith-based community has a role to play, not just because of low income but across the board," says the Rev. Richard Gaines, pastor at Consolidated Baptist Church. "There are a lot of dynamics at work here. It's not race so much; ... economics is the main driver of our issues. The church has been called — housing, schools. I firmly believe if it is important to us as a congregation, it is important to this community. Our future depends on education."

United Way of the Bluegrass will focus on the issues during a luncheon meeting at United Way offices May 27. The event is designed to bring a host of faith-based leaders and champions to the table to discuss what's next — to provide an action plan for making a difference. Fact is, if this meeting is just about the statistics there is little reason for the meeting, because the statistics speak for themselves.

United Way of the Bluegrass President and CEO Bill Farmer hopes 100 or more churches and houses of faith will be represented. Ron Edmondson, pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, is one who is already offering his support.

"I'm telling my church there isn't an option," says Edmondson. "We have to be involved in the community. ... There are big issues — homelessness, lack of food, absentee fathers. We have already invested in one school, Cardinal Valley, by providing readers for students every week. ... Our staff has one hour each week that is open to playing a bigger role. It's important for our staff to understand the value. Is the hour more important here at church or there? Our full-time job is here in the church. But we need to get out in the community. It's our strategy."

As noted, the statistics are well documented: More than half of Lexington's public school children depend on free or reduced price meals and at least 11 public schools are locked into an among-the-worst mold, including one that tests at the very bottom of public schools in Kentucky. That said, it's time to unlock the padlock.

"We intend to lead the charge," says Gaines. "We are going to lead by example. We challenge others as well — the business community, the chamber of commerce, government. It would be great to see everyone support this effort."

Fayette County Public Schools board chair John Price this week warned there will be few new dollars in the 2015-16 budget. The result? By 2016-17, it will be critical for the district to turn to alternative resources or alternative staffing. Price's comments coincided with state Education Commissioner Terry Holiday's harsh warning that if Fayette's "support of low-performing schools doesn't improve, all (other) options must be considered to narrow the county's achievement gaps."

Gaines acknowledges that United Way's Farmer faces a big challenge in mobilizing the community. "Bill has to convince others that the goal is doable. After the meeting May 27 he needs to be prepared to move with an action plan."

United Way's goal to help 10,000 more Bluegrass families become financially self-sufficient by 2020 is the right message.