Michigan is home to hundreds of worthy charitable organizations, but few are as innovative and interesting as a two-year-old group known as Kids Hope USA. Headquartered in Spring Lake in western Michigan's Ottawa County, it has attracted national attention by training church volunteers to tutor and befriend troubled or needy youngsters in elementary schools. Today, Kids Hope volunteers are at work in 16 schools, and that number is rapidly growing.
The founder of Kids Hope USA, Dr. Virgil Gulker, founded another innovative charitable group in 1981 called Love Inc., a network of more than 4,000 churches that recruits volunteers to respond to community needs. Prior to that, Dr. Gulker worked for a long time in a prison ministry. Experiences in these programs, particularly those with prisoners, taught him that in order to make a real difference in people's lives, it is best to reach them early--before they develop habits and problems that can get them into serious trouble.
An example of a successful Kids Hope volunteer group can be found in Vicksburg, Michigan, near Kalamazoo, at the Sunset Lake Elementary School. There, more than 60 volunteers are working to help some of the school's least fortunate students. All of the volunteers come from one church, Vicksburg's Lakeland Reformed Church. Thirty of these volunteers have each agreed to meet with an assigned child throughout the school term, for one hour per week, at a designated location inside the school building.
These one-hour sessions usually concentrate on reading skills, but they may also include other academic subjects. Volunteers are encouraged to get to know their students so that personal topics and problems can be discussed. Another 30 volunteers act as prayer partners, each assigned to pray for a relationship between an adult and a child. To coordinate efforts, the church employs a part-time director who schedules the appointments and meets with teachers, church leaders, volunteers, and others.
Interviews with teachers at Sunset Lake Elementary reveal encouraging results. Teachers praised the volunteers, saying they had rarely, if ever, seen volunteers so reliable. They said that the tutoring sessions had produced very positive results. A student who had never spelled a word correctly has now started to succeed at spelling. Another student who had been fighting every day now has stopped picking fights. Teachers and volunteers have both been impressed with the strong bonds of friendship that have quickly grown between the volunteers and their assigned students.
Kids Hope breaks new ground in two important ways. First, it is a new way for churches to invest human capital directly into their communities. Many churches, unfortunately, are involved in local charity only to the extent of distributing food baskets to the needy at Christmas. Kids Hope, by matching a church member with a child, establishes an ongoing, direct connection.
Secondly, Kids Hope is unique in making a connection between a church and a public school. Because of the tradition of separation of church and state, churches, up until now, have had little or no relationship with the public schools in their own communities. Somewhat surprisingly, Kids Hope has generated little opposition from school boards or teachers in its efforts to put church-recruited volunteers into schools. Certain ground rules are agreed upon. The approval of both the school and the parents are required before any volunteer work is done, and Kids Hope volunteers do not proselytize while on school grounds. But if a student's family is interested in attending church, the volunteer will encourage the family to do so.
There can be no doubt about the need for such work as this. There is a horrifying lovelessness in the lives of many of today's children. Unloved at home and failing at school, these children too often drift toward drug use and gang violence. Veteran teachers agree that the personality problems they now encounter among elementary school children are far worse than those encountered 20 years ago.
Kids Hope volunteers attack these problems by showing up once a week to spend time with a child. In doing this they express their love for these children in a way that is real and lasting. By their actions, they say, "I am here because I want to be here. For an hour you have my undivided attention." This is a personal, caring approach that seems to work.
With the poor and often counterproductive results of government programs, which are based on a distant and artificial substitute for love, perhaps it is time to pay closer attention to the direct approach now being used successfully by the volunteers of Kids Hope USA. As government does less, Kids Hope offers a proven way for the rest of us to do more.