St. John’s House has been in operation since fall 1991. In 1996 we incorporated as a nonprofit corporation and formed a board comprised of individuals from the community.
I’ve heard a couple of explanations as to how the program started but I think the two actually fit together. First, Bishop Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia challenged the churches to develop viable outreach programs. Second, one of our church members, who still volunteers to work with the children one day a week, told me the program started when she was serving on the vestry at St. John’s Episcopal Church. She said that she noticed that at every meeting most of the discussion was about immediate needs of the church, such as how to pay the bills, make payroll, do building maintenance, etc. Finally, she spoke up noting that while those issues are important she simply asked, “What are we doing for others”? Sometimes one voice is all that is needed for a wakeup call. It did not take long to identify a need in the community that we could address. Marcum Terrace is a government subsidized housing complex with approximately 280 housing units. It is only a couple of miles from the church. There are many “at risk” children living there. They are mostly from single parent families with few if any positive male role models. They are economically disadvantaged and have a greater exposure to crime, drugs, and alcohol.
There was no model to follow. The program started with a few volunteers from St. John’s Episcopal Church who played with the children and provided them a snack twice a week. We were allowed to use one of the vacant apartments. The goal was to provide a safe place for the children to go after school where they could play and interact with others while being exposed to some positive role models. The response was overwhelming with 80 to well over 100 children participating. The challenge was then to identify more specific needs and ways to meet those needs.
Having adequate space quickly became an issue. The Housing Authority solved this by allowing us to use the Community Center, a separate building in the complex. We now had a much larger kitchen, tables for the children, and office and storage space. We expanded to provide after school services five days a week throughout the school year. Greater attention was paid to programing of activities. The board games and other games helped with learning and cognitive development. Enrichment programs included bringing in people such as dentists, doctors, firefighters and police officers to talk to the children. We offered help with homework. We hope to foster a better attitude on the part of the children toward education and learning. Most importantly, we hope to booster each child’s self esteem.
To help us meet the needs of the children, we began to develop a much closer working relationship with Marshall University. We use a dietetic student to plan menus, shop for food and prepare the meals. This future dietician models healthy food choices for the children. The Marshall Department of Communication Disorders has also become very active in our program. They provide many of the student volunteers who work with the children throughout the year. A number of our children have some speech issues and this has proven to be a very good fit for us.
Initially the program was open to all the children; however, due to some behavior/disciplinary problems with some of the older children we now serve primarily children 4 to 12 years of age.
A couple of years ago the board of directors felt that we needed to do something to provide better structure and programming for the children. As a result, we entered into a collaborative partnership with Marshall University beginning in August 2011. MU provides two graduate students to coordinate the 30 in-service student volunteers provided by the university. They function as program directors and are responsible for developing and implementing enrichment activities required for eligibility at the “at-risk” reimbursement rate for the Child and Adult Care Food Program sponsored by the WV Department of Education. The performance of these graduate students has simply been outstanding. The same can be said for all the volunteers and paid staff. They’ve brought new life to the program; our attendance is up and behavior problems down. All of our volunteers and staff are required to complete a training program entitled, “Safeguarding God’s Children.” This teaches them the rules they are to follow in working with the children and gives them pertinent information about child abuse. The safety of the children is always our top priority.
St. John’s House is a “drop-in” center where children attend because they want to be there. 40 to 80 children attend each session with the average attendance in the fifties, which is almost a 100% increase over the previous year. Over 130 elementary school-aged children participated last year. There is a balance of Caucasian and African-American boys and girls. We have expanded the program to operate 8 weeks in the summer.
The expanded hours and addition of the two graduate students has increased our costs. The stipend for the two students is $4,400 per school year. We have 3 to 4 part-time employees (average about 10 hours per week). We have been able to keep our overall costs low. The Housing Authority provides the Community Center, so overhead expenses are low. Volunteers perform our bookkeeping and secretarial duties. Marshall University provides student volunteers participating in MU’s in-service learning program. We have other volunteers from St. John’s Episcopal Church and the community who work with the children. We remain financially sound. Our annual fundraising dinner is well supported by the community. St. John’s Episcopal Church offers financial support. We use the NIP tax credit. We are eligible for reimbursement of food costs through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The annual expenses for 2012-2013 will exceed $47,000, excluding the stipends paid to the university for the graduate students.
In 1998 St. John’s House was awarded the “Outstanding Community Faith Project” from the West Virginia Welfare Reform Coalition and in 2002 received the “Share the Vision Award” from Above And Beyond. We receive very positive feedback from the parents, children, and the WV Office of Child Nutrition and the Huntington Housing Authority.
At the beginning of each school year we provide backpacks and essential school supplies for approximately 110 students from pre-school up to and including seniors in high school. Throughout the year we provide positive role models, nutritious meals, and supervised activities after school. People donate age appropriate books, which are given to the children. They have the option of keeping them or returning them after they have read them.
Last year our two graduate students spoke to the congregation at St. John’s. They talked about the things that we were doing for the children, but they also in a very eloquent and moving way spoke of the impact the program has on the Marshall students. For many it’s a life changing experience and some have even changed their career goals as a result.
Eight people serve on our board and every one of them is totally dedicated to the success of this program. It has been a delight to work with them. St. John’s House Learning & Development Center, Inc. is the formal name of the program, but most of us simply call it St. John’s House. However, most of the children call it their “learning center”, and I think that is the greatest compliment. They understand what it is; they get it. And that tells me that we must be doing something right.