MAXWELL:  Church finds its calling in children

4/18/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Retired Gen. Colin Powell’s smiling face, along with that of a teenage girl, graces the cover of the April 11 issue of Parade magazine. The accompanying story discusses the celebration of the 11th annual National Youth Service Day. It is an inspiring article, showing youngsters and adults performing wonderful deeds to make their communities better.

While celebrities such as Powell bring national attention to worthy programs and volunteers, many other projects and workers whom we never read about _ especially older citizens _ toil each day, often at great personal expense and effort, to lift the quality of life for their friends and neighbors.

I know of no better example of such selflessness than that exemplified by members of Christ United Methodist Church on Gainesville’s predominantly low-income eastside. The church has 83 members, with about 30 attending services regularly.

In 1997, the pastor at that time, the Rev. Paul N. Jewett, and the administrative board discussed ways to attract new members and persuade those who did not attend to show up more often.

The major obstacle to attracting new members was a matter of demographics. When the church moved to its current location in 1965, the neighborhood was overwhelmingly white and blue collar. Today, the area is mostly black and poor. Only two of the church’s members are black. Even more, while the average age of area residents is 30 years, that of the members is 65.

“In other words,” a member said, “our church is a bunch of old white people in a younger black community.”

A revival the previous year had been a “blessing,” Jewett said, but it did not increase membership. Betty Jewett, the pastor’s wife, asked: “Why not just do what Jesus said we should do _ serve people?”

Less than two years later, that simple question has produced Prime Time, a unique after-school program that is free of charge to the neighborhood’s kindergarten and elementary school children. Currently, 18 children, all African-American, attend the program each school day from 2:30 to 5:30. It has had as many as 25. None of the children or their parents are members of the church.

“Prime Time is for children from households unable to afford traditional after-school programs,” said Betty Wagner, chairwoman of the program’s board of directors. “Prime Time offers assistance with reading, writing and arithmetic skills and provides activities that promote the development of creative talents. We want to keep these children from becoming latchkey children. We don’t want to see our children roaming the streets.”

Diane Loyless, the program’s treasurer, expresses a more long-term goal: “By helping them now, we want to deter the children from going the wrong way in later years. So many times in larger families, some children just don’t get special attention. Our volunteers work one-on-one with the kids.”

Homework is just one part of the activities. The students keep a personal journal and write and publish their own newspaper called, of course, Prime Times. A University of Florida music professor teaches piano lessons, and another professor teaches art. Each week, the children are taken on field trips, visiting places such as museums, hospitals, the airport and other important sites.

“We take the children to these places because we want them to become complete citizens,” the Rev. Jewett said.

Donna Simpson-Brown, a 47-year-old self-employed hairdresser who is often away from home in the afternoon, enrolled two children and two grandchildren in the program from the outset and believes that she made the right decision. “The tutoring is worth a million dollars in itself,” she said. “Dominique is on the honor roll. Kaytlyn . . . brought up her grades from Cs to As and Bs. And she is taking piano lessons. She loves it. I definitely see an attitude shift in my children since they’ve been in Prime Time. They don’t want to stay home after school. They want to come here. I don’t have to worry about them getting into trouble if I’m not home.”

While Jewett and the volunteers believe that Prime Time is a miracle, they also believe that how it became a reality is just as miraculous. After establishing an advisory board, Jewett had to raise money for a safe playground, two paid staffers, a van and supplies.

The first $20 came from a local restaurant where the pastor ate each Sunday. Jewett wrote to a friend in California describing his plan, and the friend, a retired Warner Bros. executive, donated the $4,000 that established a memorial playground for Prime Time students. Since then, many other permanent donors have come aboard.

“The most rewarding and blessed part of this whole experience is the way that people want to help if you tell them what you’re doing,” Jewett said. “They respond. A professor at the university and his wife, for example, have underwritten two children to attend the program for a year.”

Jewett says his budget is about $25,000 a year, but the families pay only a $10 registration fee. Everything else is free. “We are struggling,” he said, “but we believe that we are doing what we should be doing as representatives of Jesus: helping people.”