Sharon Dentlinger, Superintendent of the Interstate 35 Community School District; Julie Robinson, Principal in the Iowa City Community School District; and Carl Turner, retired Superintendent of the Storm Lake Community School District were the featured presenters at the August 6, 2020, Good Idea Webinar on Back to School Partnerships.
Rev. Ron Carlson, Northwest District Superintendent hosted and opened the webinar asking the panelists how they thought United Methodist churches could best connect with and support educators during the pandemic.
Food Distribution, School Supplies, and Social Services
Sharon Dentlinger from Interstate 35 responded saying churches that are doing some sort of food distribution are not just helping the schools but their communities as well.
“I know that a lot of churches do food drives to support families and communities,” said Dentlinger. She added that the Interstate 35 Community School District has three communities that feed into their school district and there are some pretty significant needs for many of their students.
She continued saying that in addition to providing meals, that donations of school supplies will be huge this year. To keep the student’s germ-free and as safe as possible in a learning environment, schools will need to discontinue communal school supplies. That means schools will need to make sure that students have adequate school supplies throughout the whole year.
Carl Turner from Storm Lake said that the Storm Lake United Methodist Church's BLESS School Supply Distribution program allows students to pick out their backpack and supplies based on their grade level. The BLESS program is tailored to provide exactly what the students need. For safety, this year they will be distributing using a drive-thru.
Addressing the needs of families on a larger scale, Dentlinger said, “I like the idea of possibly offering some opportunities for community education through the church. For example, I know there are lots of questions about unemployment and mental health support services. Oftentimes the experts for those topics are found in our churches.”
Dentlinger suggested that churches could also partner with schools and offer free social service presentations for families that focus specifically on issues that many are dealing with during these difficult times.
Julie Robinson from Iowa City said that her team started brainstorming before the coronavirus pandemic hit and focused on their most at-risk families that live in a mobile home park.
When the Iowa City schools set up lunch distribution points, they weren’t able to staff a person to drop off lunches to that mobile home park. First United Methodist Church in Iowa City stepped up and, from Monday through Friday each week since May, they have come to the distribution site, picked up and delivered 55 lunches to students who live there.
Robinson said that another thing that has been helpful with their partnership with First UMC is the financial support that has been provided to 21 families who do not qualify for any government assistance because of their immigration status.
“Through the congregation's effort, a significant amount of funding has gone to helping families cover their rent, and in some cases, pay their entire rent,” said Robinson.
First UMC in Iowa City started a program where they have distributed gift cards to HyVee Grocery Stores so that families will have help purchasing their groceries. Robinson said both those partnerships have made an incredible difference to their school’s families.
Turner agreed that providing food is going to be critical as food prices go up and families are stressed economically.
Prayers and Childcare
Turner encouraged churches to pray for all the decisions that families and schools have to make and ultimately pray that kids, teachers, and families will be safe.
“And it's going to be difficult for kids to learn because they're hearing all the news, too. So, we can pray,” said Turner.
Another very important program that churches can provide is childcare.
“Childcare is just a really big deal in Storm Lake. I think churches could provide childcare options for families, especially before and after school,” said Turner. “The United Methodist Church has really done a good job of providing after school opportunities for kids for that gap between when kids get out of school and when parents are still at work so that there's someplace for kids to go.”
Support and Encourage Teachers
The final discussion was on the support and encouragement of teachers during the pandemic and these stressful times.
“One of the things that can help is when someone does something thoughtful for the staff. For example, it can be something as simple as sending a bouquet for the staffroom along with a note that says we're thinking of you,” said Robinson.
Turner also said that writing encouraging notes to teachers is a good way to show support. Teachers don’t have all the answers. They are in new territory and trying their best to figure all this out. He encouraged churches to send notes telling the teachers that they are praying for them. Notes are easy, meaningful, and powerful to receive.
“We're facing trials of many kinds and God's there to help us out. We need to pray a lot. Right now, the way we approach the situation, our kids are watching us. This is developing who they will be, how they will respond to tough times, and it's all about attitude. Remember, we can't control what happens to us. We can control how we respond to it. We need to respond to this as positively as we can and know that God is using these difficult times to make us better people,” said Turner.
The Good Idea webinars are a joint effort of the Office of Congregational Excellence, Office of Clergy Leadership and Excellence, the Cabinet, and lay leaders of the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.