Houses of faith, local schools working together

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For two decades, Kathy Cleary and her brother and sister, congregants at Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington, have been helping to improve the quality of life for students attending public schools in Fayette County. Their efforts have been somewhat unnoticed because they are not done with a goal of receiving community recognition. After all, who would question the value of helping students in local schools?

United Way of the Bluegrass has decided it’s important to find the answer to that question, because it is critical for the future of our schools.

The local focus is in concert with a trio of goals — education, financial assistance and health — established by United Way Worldwide several years ago and ties directly to United Way of the Bluegrass’ Community Education Initiative to bring the faith community and public schools together to create opportunities for student success. It’s all part of the nonprofit’s “Big Bold Goal.”

Roy Woods Sr., United Way’s vice president of community education initiatives, is working with a steering committee — composed of leaders from churches, synagogues, mosques and interfaith groups, schools, local government agencies and others — to match houses of faith with the opportunities and needs that exist in neighboring schools.

The committee, under the spirited guidance of Consolidated Baptist Church Pastor Richard Gaines and Councilwoman Amanda Mays Bledsoe, is targeting 300-plus houses of faith. It is trying to identify the level of support these religious groups may already be providing public school students. That way it will be easier to develop a broader, long-term strategy.

Woods is encouraging the faith-based institutions to “share your story with us so we can include your work with others looking for ideas. This information we receive will be entered into a database and made available to all who could benefit from the information.”

For example, Cleary’s team is working with students at Cardinal Valley Elementary School, where many Latino students are hungry for the life experiences enjoyed by students at many other schools. “Most are low income, with very little exposure to little things in life, such as how to pot a plant, how to cook on a stove. Many of the students are emotionally needy, some are depressed, there are significant academic gaps,” she said.

Partners for Youth, a local government agency, holds neighborhood meetings in Cardinal Valley, Gainesway, the West End and Woodhill areas to determine needs of our youth. Executive director Laura Hatfield reports the following priorities have surfaced during the meetings: transportation (from school to jobs), after-school programs, jobs for youth and development of life-focused and college-readiness skills.

Hatfield believes working in a collaborative manner with United Way will make a difference. “No one organization can get this done alone,” she said.

Roz Heise, a member of Bluegrass United Church of Christ and the Interfaith Alliance agrees. “We need to find the gaps in community education and we need to help the community better understand what needs to be done.” she said. “We all have a role in helping each other. It takes a village.”

Assistance in some schools is focused on mentoring and tutoring. At Cardinal Valley, financial assistance has helped students take educational field trips, while Liz Henry of the church points with pride to an ongoing collection of much-needed items such as coats and shoes.

Those are just a few examples. In reality, the opportunities to be engaged in this faith- and school-based community effort are as widespread as one blessed with faith can imagine.

David M. Smith of Lexington is a retired president and CEO of United Way of Ventura County, Calif.