Outreach program for moms and children thriving at Bethany

Mothers and their preschoolers interact, learn, play during Mommy and Me

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Annette Wiebe, pastor of childrens outreach, interacts with children . during a Friday morning session of Mommy and Me at Bethany Church in Fresno. Wiebe organizes activities for each session around a selection of childrens literature and speaks regularly of her faith in Jesus as she leads the opening and closing. Photo: Bethany Church

Every Friday morning during the school year, the first floor of Bethany Church in Fresno, Calif., is filled with mothers and their young children participating in Mommy and Me, the church’s “interactive preschool learning group.”

Annette Wiebe, pastor of children’s outreach at Bethany Church, began the program in 2005 after a new apartment complex was built near the church. The pastor of Bethany at the time had encouraged the staff to brainstorm ideas for outreach opportunities.

Wiebe, formerly a kindergarten teacher in Fresno, decided to use her background in child development to create a program that would focus on creating a comfortable place for mothers to interact and learn with their preschool age children. She wanted the program to be free and outreach-focused, with mothers of children at Bethany Church inviting mothers from outside the church body.

“It’s a place for moms to come and interact with their kids and be introduced to Jesus,” says Wiebe. “It’s about showing God’s love, an outpouring of his character.”

Each week, moms and their kids check in at the church and gather to begin the morning with prayer and songs. Wiebe bases each week’s content on a different story from children’s literature, so she then reads aloud the book that will be the focus of the morning’s activities.

Everyone then divides into groups to walk through numerous stations, each one with a different activity. Stations include art projects, puzzles that focus on teaching math skills, “cooking” or making snacks and a sharing time that follows a “show and tell” style format. The morning concludes with another gathering time where Wiebe recgonizes birthdays and leads the moms and children in a closing prayer.

Wiebe works to incorporate faith and the gospel into each week’s curriculum. In addition to prayer, she speaks openly of her faith during the opening and closing sessions.

“I constantly talk about how God is involved in the day’s topic,” Wiebe says. “For example, if we are talking about whales, we talk about the Creator. I always find a way to tie the literature to a Bible message.”

During the Christmas and Easter seasons, she incorporates books and music focused on Jesus’ birth and resurrection, knowing that it may be the first time some children have heard the stories. Wiebe always encourages moms to seek her out if they want more information about Jesus.

Growth and community

Participation in Mommy and Me has grown significantly in the past 14 years.

In the first couple years, Wiebe estimates around 15 to 20 children attended with their mothers. That number had grown to about 65 to 70 children last year, mostly thanks to word-of-mouth invitations.

Wiebe asks mothers to answer on a questionaire where they first heard of Mommy and Me, and many say they heard from a friend or even just another mother they ran into at the park.

Wiebe says she has tweaked the program after growth spurts, adding more stations and providing childcare in the nursery for children too young to participate in activities. She tells the story of one mother who was thrilled to have time to focus on her middle child at Mommy and Me while her older child was in school and her younger child was in the nursery.

Currently, about 10 women from Bethany Church volunteer each week to help run the activities.

“They’re very committed because they want to build relationships,” Wiebe says.

Looking forward, Wiebe hopes to someday have a setup team that can help prepare the church on Thursday evenings as the program continues to grow.

Moms build community

While Mommy and Me is designed for preschool age children, Wiebe encourages moms with children of other ages to come and participate in whatever activities fit their child’s age and ability.

She sees the program not just as a place for mothers to interact with their children, but also with other mothers.

“Often the moms will bring a lunch for their children and they will stay and play and fellowship with other moms and children on our playground,” Wiebe says. “The moms spend more time getting to know each other in this way. This continues to build the community.”

That community at Mommy and Me is fairly diverse, both culturally and socioeconomically. Wiebe says they regularly have mothers from the Asian population of Fresno, as well as Spanish speakers. The group also includes mothers of all different levels of educational background.

“They are so supportive and encouraging of one another,” Wiebe says.

She adds that they have even had fathers or grandparents participate if mothers were unable to attend.

Last year, the program “graduated” 20 children from different elementary schools throughout Fresno, demonstrating its reach far beyond the neighborhood of Bethany Church.

Wiebe says that nearly all the mothers and children who attend are not from Bethany, although many now identify Bethany as their church. She says the hope is that after attending Mommy and Me on Fridays, mothers and families will begin attending other kids’ programs on Wednesdays and eventually Sunday services.

Wiebe has seen the program bear fruit in the lives of mothers and their children. She loves to see quieter children or children with special needs participating with excitement in sharing time. She also sees many moms coming back year after year. Some have even returned to volunteer after their children have graduated Mommy and Me.

“They like the experience so much that they want to stay involved even after their kids reach school age,” Wiebe says.

Looking forward, Wiebe hopes to someday have a setup team that can help prepare the church on Thursday evenings as the program continues to grow.

Jessica Vix Allen
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Meade, Kansas. She and her husband, Joel, have one daughter.

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