By Jessica Connor
SPARTANBURG – It’s a sunny, breezy afternoon in northwest Spartanburg, and the happy shouts of children playing outside fill the air. Laughter swirls as delighted shrieks and claps bring smiles to the faces of the handful of adults who watch them.
On the playground behind Arcadia United Methodist Church, these could be any kids, any place. Happy. Thriving, Secure. But the facts tell a different story.
Nearly all are severely low-income – 99 percent receive a free or reduced lunch from their local elementary school. About 80 percent are Hispanic, and many have parents who speak little or no English. Some have barely any food at home.
Yet they smile. They play. They feel loved.
And they are thriving.
For the past 12 years, neighborhood first graders have been able to call Arcadia UMC their home away from home thanks to the strong afterschool care they receive daily from ARCH Ministries. The 53 first graders enrolled are bused from nearby Arcadia Elementary to the church, where they play with educational toys and receive a healthy snack. After recess, they head into the classrooms for about an hour and a half to work on homework, language help and more. After, the kids all receive a nutritious supper before their parents pick them up.
“We’re getting them at that foundational level,” said JoAnne Smith, director of ARCH Ministries, noting that first grade is that perfect age level where they are old enough to understand the more complex lessons they receive, while still being young enough to benefit from the loving character-building the volunteers try so hard to instill.
Smith, who refers to the kids as her “babies,” said ARCH has two major priorities: help them overcome a language barrier, and relieve some of their hunger needs so they can perform better academically. (After all, no kid can excel on an empty stomach.)
Once those two hurdles are handled, Smith said, they can relax and benefit from the hands-on instruction every student receives from top-notch education volunteers.
“It’s an atmosphere that’s tremendously rewarding,” said Pat Smith, an afterschool teacher there since 2005. “These kids are so hungry for you to help them, so eager to be over here.”
A ‘rainbow’ of care
ARCH started in 2000 to help first to third graders in the neighborhood who needed a safe place to receive afterschool care, a nutritious meal and help with their homework. 21st Century grants and, later, a block grant from Spartanburg County helped launch the program. Later, after the nearby elementary school began its own efforts to serve the afterschool needs of children, ARCH partnered with the school and ironed out a plan that they would provide care for first graders only, while the school would care for children in the other grades.
ARCH gets help from Spartanburg Methodist College and Wofford College, both of which provide work study students, interns and other volunteers who work one on one with the children. Individual donations along with grants support their work.
“God has been so great and faithful,” Director JoAnn Smith said. “One thing has led to another.”
While predominantly Hispanic, ARCH also has a number of white, African-American and Asian students who attend – perhaps fitting for their name. The name symbolizes the arch of a rainbow between church and school, with the church at one end, the school at the other and the community in the middle.
Making a difference
And it’s working. Tommy Ariail, ARCH board chair, said he can see the results, and that has kept him coming back to help year after year.
“We have kids who came through this program and now they’re through college, and they come back and visit,” he said.
Laura Kate Gamble, a Spanish major at Wofford College who helps ARCH Ministries, said she fell in love with the kids from the start. She loves to practice her Spanish with them, and she said working with them is so rewarding.
“A lot of times people feel you have to go all the way around the world to make a difference, but really you can just do it in your own backyard,” Gamble said, herding a group of boys and girls indoors for a lesson.
The children seem to appreciate the loving care they receive. The day the Advocate visited, a crowd of children gathered, eager to share their stories.
“It’s fun, and we learn, and we get to play, and they give us food!” Stephanie Ramirez, 7, rattled off excitedly, bouncing on the toes of her sneakers.
“We get to go to the classroom, and we get sour candy!” said Elysia Castro, 6, a shy smile lighting up her face. “And we get to play outside on the swings, and even get help with math!”
Smith beams as she watches her flock, neatly filing upstairs to the classrooms.
“We’re not babysitters,” she said. “We’re here to help your child.”
For more information about ARCH Ministries, call Smith at 864-494-5878 or [email protected] .