"Work for Fun" partnership with local school leads to innovative service program
By Myra Holmes
Through the Work for Fun program at Neighborhood Church, Visalia, Calif., children from a lower-income part of the city are rewarded with new opportunities as they serve others.
About seven years ago, Neighborhood established a partnership with Houston Elementary School. Houston is in a neighborhood that is “always in the news,” according to Stephanie Bartsch, the church’s missional strategist—a part of town plagued by gangs, drugs and poverty. But it’s also an area filled with hard-working families, often immigrants from Mexico, who love their children and want a better future for them.
“It’s one of those neighborhoods that has lots of challenges, but the more we’ve gotten involved, the more we’ve fallen in love with these kids and these families that are working really hard to love their children and provide for their families,” Bartsch says.
Neighborhood Church has organized a number of outreach efforts with Houston, such as a shoe giveaway, backpack giveaway and a lunch buddies program. But as volunteers interacted with the Houston families, they began to realize that these parents and families wanted to give back, not just receive.
Bartsch says that, while giveaways are well-intentioned and do meet a need, too often they have unintended negative consequences: Parents might feel humiliated because they can’t provide, kids learn they don’t have anything valuable to contribute and both can come to expect to receive without effort.
So Neighborhood Church launched Work for Fun in the 2012-2013 school year with a focus on relationships and on dignity. The program is pretty much what it sounds like: Kids in third through sixth grade meet at Houston School one Saturday each month to work on a service project and earn a fun reward. The program is adapted from similar programs designed for adults.
Service projects are kid-appropriate but also aim to make a real difference. For past service projects, participants made teddy bears for kids in need, wrote notes of appreciation for teachers, planted trees to create a park-like area behind the school and painted artwork to decorate the dining room at the local rescue mission.
Bartsch says the kids serve willingly: “I think they love the service more than the fun stuff.” As they serve, they learn that they can make a positive impact on someone else’s life. She tells about some children who wanted to keep the teddy bears they had made. But when reminded that the bears would go to children who had experienced trauma, they gave with an attitude of “I want other kids to have something good, too.”
Kids who serve earn “fun dollars” toward activities that will help “expand their worldview and their possibilities,” says Bartsch—such as a picnic, a field trip to the zoo or an educational nature hike. Last year, rewards also included things like art classes, music lessons or sports leagues, but organizers found that it was difficult for kids to link the service with distant rewards and sometimes difficult for them to find transportation to the reward activity. So this year, rewards follow service almost immediately, and transportation is provided if necessary.
About 125 kids participated in Work for Fun last school year; Bartsch expects similar participation this year.
In addition, parents and older siblings are invited to participate as volunteers, and a parent group at the school helps with planning. Bartsch says the parents enjoy being involved and trusted with leadership and have a deep sense of ownership in the program.
About 30 Neighborhood volunteers make it happen each time, often bringing their own children to serve alongside the Houston children. As families work together, relationships form, even across language barriers.
Bartsch tells about two sisters from a “rough” home life who have experienced both relationship and dignity through Work for Fun. The girls would often come early, so they became key helpers in setting up and preparing for each event. She says the girls not only know they’re loved by the volunteers but also feel needed in a way they probably don’t feel in the rest of their lives. When one particularly-loved intern left for a 10-month mission, the sisters took leadership in planning a going-away party.
Bartsch says that volunteers don’t overtly preach at Work for Fun, but “The gospel is part of everything we do….They know we’re from Neighborhood Church, and they know we do this because we believe that God loves them deeply and we love them.”