Sanctuary Kids: Church opens doors to K-8 kids on all-virtual learning weeks so parents can work

By Jessica Brodie

CLEMSON—What do you do when a pandemic has shifted schools online, yet you know parents need to work and have no one to stay home and care for their kids—or help with schoolwork?

If you’re Clemson United Methodist Church, you open your doors to those kids and offer help the best way you can.

Amanda Thomas, director of children and youth ministries at Clemson UMC, spent the summer visiting family to family social-distance-style, sitting in their driveways and porches, checking in with people.

“What I realized talking to the families was just how anxious parents were about school and what it would look like in fall,” Thomas said.

Some families have only one parent, so staying home is not an option. Others, with two parents, have chosen for one parent to quit a job, which has created financial and other hardship, especially as many of those jobs are considered front-line work, such as teaching or health care.

“It really weighed on my heart, and I prayed about it,” Thomas said. “So I went to our church council and asked, ‘What could we do?’”

In their area, the school district has made the decision that students—for now—go to school in-person for three weeks, then all-virtual two weeks. Those all-virtual two weeks are the difficult part. For parents who have to work, who will be at home with the kids, some as young as 5 or 6? Is a child who is 8 old enough to stay home alone? What about one who is 10? For older kids, seventh and eighth graders, the question is not “are they old enough” but “should they” have that much time, with unlimited online access, unsupervised?

With that in mind, Thomas asked the church council whether it would consider providing all-day care for the church’s elementary and middle school students during virtual weeks. After all, Clemson UMC has the facility and internet capacity to be able to provide the space and technology.

“Without hesitation, they agreed,” Thomas said. “We were being called to think outside of the box and to support families the best way that we could.”

Calling it “Sanctuary Kids,” Clemson UMC allows church families to bring their kids every day from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on all-virtual weeks. There are currently 40 kids, and they have about one adult for every seven kids.

Wearing masks and practicing social distancing, they follow the school schedule, making sure the kids are on their online learning platform doing homework and schoolwork from roughly 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The kids bring their own lunch, and they play socially distanced games when their work is over, like “The Floor is Lava” or group pushups.

“It’s been really great,” Thomas said. “I have one parent, and when he came Monday he was crying. He said, ‘I’m so proud of my church for doing this and so thankful for my family. I didn’t know what I was going to do!’”

Clemson UMC applied for a temporary childcare license and are trying hard to follow all the rules about childcare. Parents are charged a small fee to use Sanctuary Kids—$20/day or $100/week, with a discount of $80/week for the second child, so the church has the funds to pay workers.

“It’s been a Godsend,” said parent Candice Bell, who has two kids, 7 and 10, and had to quit her job because she had no childcare. Now she’s one of the workers at Sanctuary Kids, helping to care not only for her own children but her fellow church members’, too. “Now I’ve realized I can work but have somewhere affordable and safe for my children to go. Not all parents can quit their job—teachers still have to teach, and we do have a few teachers’ kids here, too!”

Church members built partitions for the tables to create work spaces for each child. These work spaces enable the children to concentrate on their virtual work and to also be distanced from each other for safety.

And it’s not only church members’ kids they are helping. Clemson UMC reached out to teachers at the local schools who are facing trying to teach their own classes as well as having their own children trying to do virtual school.

“I love the connection we are building with the community through this ministry,” Thomas said. “The older kids have jumped at a chance to read to the younger kids during their breaks. And the younger kids have loved that the older kids have included them in football games and basketball games. They have eaten lunch together and played outside or in the gym during free time.”

One day, Thomas said, their middle school girls wrote their own children’s sermon for Clemson UMC’s online worship service and filmed it, and the older boys made their own video for the offering time in the church’s online worship service.

“There is laughter in our church hallways and lots of noise. Those first few days you could see how much anxiety these children are living with trying to learn through WebEx (online learning) videos and staring at a screen for hours a day. There were tears shed when the videos weren’t working and the whole WebEx system crashed,” Thomas said. “But what I saw after those first days was more confident children willing to ask for help and to take things in stride.”

Thomas and the rest of the church say they are incredibly to thankful to have discovered an opportunity to minister to families in such a practical, helpful way.

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