View from the Pew
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Nathyn Clement, 6, gave Russ Wells his unique hug on Tuesday. They are part of Common Grace, a mentoring program by churches that has volunteers spending lunch hour with kids, socializing, helping with their reading and just being friends. The project started after the Columbine shootings to encourage kids, help keep them in school and out of antisocial behavior. The volunteers are from Kapahulu Bible Church and work with kids at Waikiki Elementary School.
Bonds of friendship
Common Grace pairs church members with schoolchildren for lunch and mentoring
While the other 360 students Waikiki Elementary School filled the cafeteria picnic tables for lunch, 10 children had reserved seating at round craft tables near the stage.
It was Tuesday, the day their hanai aunties and uncles from Kapahulu Bible Church were there to eat with them, talk story, read books and play games, the best lunch hour of the week. And the best part of it is, they can count on their adult friends to be back again next week for more one-on-one attention.
The school is one of 30 public schools on Oahu that have partnered with neighboring churches in the Common Grace mentoring program. There are 150 volunteers who commit to spending at least an hour a week with youngsters identified by their teachers as needing some special loving attention. More than 150 kids are involved, some doubling up with one adult.
"So many children feel rejected or isolated," said former state Rep. Dennis Arakaki, who is on the staff of the nonprofit organization created in the wake of the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado where two disaffected students killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves. "Not all the kids are from poor or broken homes. Some are from more affluent neighborhoods. Some are painfully shy, have low self-esteem."
"The way society is today, it is easy for children to grow up isolated," said Arakaki. "And they may grow up to be lonely, isolated adults."
The Waikiki Elementary children were not feeling isolated Tuesday as they were allowed to invite classmates to join them in the special seating section.
Second-grader Jia Jun Zhen started the lunch hour with a brief, quiet conversation with Pastor Jim Stern, who has the valuable ability to speak Cantonese to the child, whose family moved here from China. But then the gang arrived, and the table became a perpetual-motion exhibition.
"It makes me happy to see him," said Rui Ling Ling, who watched her son's lively lunch crowd. "Before, he was really shy, not sure of his English. He fits in better now, he has a lot of friends, he enjoys playing games," said Ling with the interpreting help of Anna Stern, the pastor's wife.
"They asked to come sit with me," said third-grader Zack Mattero, dragging four more chairs to his table for the guys who came to bask in the smiling attention of Iolani School track coach David Sakoda, a Kapahulu Bible Church member.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mentor Rebecca Stringer and Jamie Hatch, 7, had fun Tuesday as they played cards. Volunteers spend the lunch hour interacting with the children in the Waikiki Elementary School cafeteria.
Zack qualified as the poster boy for the mentoring program as he headed back to class after a successful game of Uno. "I'm the winner," he proclaimed with a wide grin and arms raised in a gesture of championship.
Associate pastor Kenric Odani said, "We like to see them invite friends to the table. It makes them feel important. It means when we leave, they have other friends to be with."
Sober-faced Lisa sat close as a hug to Becca Stringer as they took turns at a pegboard game of Frustration. Stringer said the third-grader "is an introvert. She livened up a lot when we went to the zoo a couple weeks ago."
Down at the end, as the second seating for lunch wound to a close, fifth-grader Clarissa completed an assignment in a class workbook in a private moment with her serene, low-voiced friend Anna Stern. "If she has something bothering her, we will talk," said Stern, who returns to the school for Thursday lunch with another girl. Otherwise, the chance to bring friends along to the table "gives these kids something to offer their friends. It gives them a step up," she said.
"Everyone wants an Anna," said Waikiki Principal Bonnie Tabor. "It makes the kids proud about having a friend. They have a role model, a significant adult in their lives." Tabor said the children are referred by teachers.
"Some of their families have gone through crises," such as one youngster whose father died recently.
Tabor said the program, in its second year at the school, "is one of the most wonderful things we've been a part of. These volunteers are part of our family."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
Alana Ammons helped Leona Hastings, 5, wash a car Sunday at the Common Grace car wash held at Waimalu Elementary School. Ammons has been mentoring Leona as part of the Common Grace program.
One thing they do not talk about at the table is religion, said Arakaki. "There are no Bibles, no proselytizing, no invitations to church," as both schools and churches are conscious of the legal constraints.
"We promise not to bring Sunday school to the public schools," said Jay Jarman, executive director of Common Grace. "After friendships are built, volunteers will take the kids to a picnic or the zoo. It doesn't happen in the first semester, only after the family begins to like and trust the mentor. Then the volunteer might also take a brother or sister, even a parent, along on an outing."
Last weekend, volunteers and students from several Leeward schools washed cars at Waimalu Elementary School, sharing "Bubbles and Books." The fun time culminated in trips to Borders, where the students all got to select books, thanks to a $3,000 donation from the Group 70 architectural firm.
Common Grace screens all volunteers, making criminal-record checks and requiring a pastor's recommendation.
It also trains them. There is a list of restrictions for the protection of the volunteers and churches as well as for the children and schools. Always meet in public, no off-campus trips without parental consent, no bad-mouthing the child's parents or teachers, no conspicuous gifts and "be wise and discreet in displaying affection."
For the volunteers, sharing their love with youngsters is an act of faith. They pray for the children before they meet with them. Arakaki cited Bible passages that are the spiritual core of the program, including the words of Jesus in Matthew's gospel: "Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me."
Jarman was a founder of the program, which was started at Liliuokalani Elementary School. The Kaimuki Christian Church congregation met in the school cafeteria while their sanctuary was under reconstruction four years ago. When they offered to give back to the school -- thinking of painting, landscaping, cleanup projects -- "the principal told us, 'We have a lot of lonely children on this campus. Do you have anyone who would come and spend time with them?'
"We got chicken skin," Jarman recalled. "We said that was a God moment."