National program Kids Hope USA creates impact for local students

Kids Hope USA volunteer Sarah Wust (left) and Flint Springs Elementary School first-grader Elyni Long check out a boxed puzzle they planned to do during their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Flint Springs.
Kids Hope USA volunteer Sarah Wust (left) and Flint Springs Elementary School first-grader Elyni Long check out a boxed puzzle they planned to do during their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Flint Springs. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2017.

It’s a national program, based on the power of the individual.

“One school, one church, one student, one mentor, one hour,” says Ronda Hawkins.

All of those “ones” add up to a big impact — a feeling of worth for each student involved.

That feeling of worth, professional educators say, is the foundation on which everything else is built.

“We can talk math and reading until we’re blue in the face,” says Mark DuBois, principal of Northwest Elementary School.

“But you see kids have more success the more people who are surrounding them, pouring into them … Once they start getting that support, you start seeing growth as an individual, then academically.”

The national program, Kids Hope USA, works to provide that support by pairing one church with one school, training volunteers from the church to serve as mentors to teacher-nominated students. The mentor and student spend an hour a week together, every week throughout the student’s time at that school.

Although the hour-long meetings may touch on some academics — help with spelling or math — the main focus is just to develop a lasting relationship.

“Being an educator is more than just teaching a lesson,” DuBois says.

Aimee Lunsford, the principal at Flint Springs, talks about the “hierarchy of needs” for children, with safety, security, food, shelter and clothing topping the list.

Kids Hope, she says, is a way to fill “lower level needs” — snuggling, reading a book together, helping with spelling words. Those things, she says, are hard to fit in at home when a parent is working two or three jobs or is incarcerated.

“It gives the kids someone who’s dependable, who will show up week after week just for them,” she says.

“You’re there to talk to them,” says Hawkins, a retired teacher who serves as coordinator of the Kids Hope USA partnership between Flint Springs Elementary School and the Huntington First Church of the Nazarene — the fourth, and newest, pairing in Huntington County.

“You’re there to find out what they’re missing, what in their life you can help them cope with.”
Sometimes that takes the shape of art lessons, piano lessons or a manicure.

Volunteer Sarah Wust and Flint Springs first-grader Elyni Long were meeting for the third time on Tuesday, Jan. 31, and had games and activities lined up on a bench in a school hallway for their hour together.

“We like to color and stuff,” Elyni says. “Last time we did Go Fish and Uno.”

Wust and Elyni have found that both like art and neither is fond of math.

“I like to be with her,” Elyni says. “It’s fun to play games with her and it’s fun to be with her.”

Wust signed up as a mentor, she says, because she misses hanging out with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club in Huntington, where she used to work.

“I miss investing in those kids and doing art stuff with them,” she says.

Kids Hope lets her do that again, and she’s one of many mentors who have been able to arrange their full-time jobs to spend an hour at a school.

“I take an extended lunch, and then I work over after my normal working time,” Wust explains.

Hawkins also watched the program take shape at Northwest Elementary School, which is paired with Faith Chapel Church of God, during the month she spent at Northwest as a substitute secretary. There, she saw students she had in her pre-retirement classroom blossom under the attentions of a mentor.

“We’re here to help these children who really need some one-on-one attention,” Hawkins says. “I know this is a nice place to raise kids, but I also know there’s kids in need.”

Mentor Sue Maynard says that’s what pulled her into the program.

“I thought it would stretch me out of my comfort zone,” she says. “And there was a need.”

She got a tour of the Flint Springs building when she met with her first-grade friend, Michaela Decker, on Tuesday, Jan. 31.

“She showed me where the gym was,” Maynard says.

Sometimes they color — “Because it’s fun,” Michaela says — and sometimes they sing. They’ve been singing Michaela’s favorite song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” for the last two weeks.

“Today I brought a map to show her where I moved here from,” Maynard says, “so I guess we did a little geography, too.”

“The main objective is just to give them one-on-one time,” Maynard says. “She hasn’t said anything but I’m sure she enjoys the attention.”

They’ll meet an hour a week throughout the school year.

“Hopefully I’ll be connected with her throughout her career here,” Maynard says.

DuBois, the principal at Northwest, and his wife Abby brought Kids Hope USA to Huntington County after the Wabash church the couple attends was paired with Southwood Elementary School.

“We said, ‘Why isn’t this happening in Huntington County?’” DuBois says. Once they started telling people about the program, it caught on.

“We were just communicating to the ears that were ready to hear it,” he says.

After meetings with school administrators and community leaders, Kids Hope USA launched at Lincoln and Lancaster last year, at Northwest early this school year and at Flint Springs in January.

Lincoln is paired with Evangelical United Methodist Church, and Lancaster with the Markle Church of Christ.

Lunsford, the principal at Flint Springs, is a member of the Huntington Church of the Nazarene. She suggested the church get involved in the program.

“I was a pain in their side,” she says with a laugh. “It gave me an opportunity to advocate for the need we have.”

The church agreed to pay the $3,000 fee to become a part of the national Kids Hope USA organization, and the program was introduced to the congregation last October.

“We had people come out of the woodwork,” Lunsford says.

Hawkins agreed to direct the program, and 27 church members initially agreed to be trained as mentors.

The mentors are not professional educators, but they’ve gone through an application process complete with interviews, training and screening — even criminal background checks — before meeting with their students, and they work with the support, encouragement and prayers of their church.

Each mentor has a prayer partner, explains Hawkins. The mentor and prayer partner discuss high points and low points in confidentiality, she says.

The Nazarene Church started with 30 mentors, has two more ready to go and three waiting in the wings, Hawkins notes.

“So we have over 60, 65 people involved in the program in our church,” she says.