While the idea of churches working with secular organizations to provide social services often sparks public debate, the truth is that nonprofits and government agencies routinely pair up with faith-based organizations to serve youth throughout the country.
Faith-based and secular organizations find they can often fill each other’s gaps in carrying out youth programs, providing such things as volunteers, meeting places, youth worker training and administrative support.
The city of Baltimore turned to such partnerships because of concerns over escalating youth violence.
“In 1999, we had a record number of young people who were victims of gunfire,” says Jamaal Moses, executive director of Baltimore Rising, an outreach program created in response to the violence. “We needed mentoring programs, and churches were already providing this type of thing.”
Moses tapped into the local religious community’s natural emphasis on outreach and young people. He says the city now maintains partnerships with 75 faith-based organizations.
Youth work administrators tell similar stories in other communities. Dan Johnson, director of a mentoring program called Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, says, “Churches are still our top sources of volunteers.”
Those involved in such partnerships say they make sense for several reasons.
“The needs of children in our communities are so monumental right now, it’s more than one organization or church can undertake,” says Doug Tegner, executive director of the National Network of Youth Ministries.
Johnson notes that while it’s difficult to find people willing to give time to at-risk youth, reaching out to kids is a natural part of many church ministries. “There’s a ‘busy-ness’ epidemic in this country,” Johnson says. “It’s very difficult to find people who want to make long-term commitments to kids.”
Volunteers from churches tend to be very committed because they believe they’re serving both their churches and their communities, says Lisa Walker, who coordinates a church partnership with a mentoring program run by San Diego’s Health and Human Services Department.
She also notes that the volunteers must go through reviews by both the church and the county. “It’s double everything,” she says, which not only ensures that the volunteers are serious, but also helps to make certain that their backgrounds are clean.
The partnerships work especially well when organizations can pool resources. In Saukville, Wis., the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA provides staff and programming for a community Girls Night Out program, while Immanuel Lutheran Church provides free space for the gatherings.
Another advantage, notes Moses in Baltimore, is that many people respect churches more than they respect government – so government programs gain in the eyes of their clientele by linking with faith groups.
Nevertheless, such partnerships can present tricky issues.
Some faith-based volunteers want to preach to the kids, Moses says. He says the city advises the pastors at participating churches that if they want city funding to help run their mentoring programs for at-risk kids, they can’t emphasize the church or religion as part of the mentoring. It still happens occasionally, he says.
Tegner at the national network sees proselytizing as less of a problem than it used to be. “There’s a growing understanding in the church community that service and compassion are high values,” he explains. “Proselytizing isn’t even on the agenda anymore. …
“There are many more shared values between churches and organizations working with kids than people realize.”
Once a partnership is established and volunteers are lined up, challenges remain. Sustainability is a big problem, says Johnson of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis. He emphasizes that it’s helpful to have staff who can mentor volunteers, help them troubleshoot problems, keep them motivated and ensure that they’re meeting their commitments.
“We make a good match between kids and mentors from the outset, and we have the staff to support the relationships,” Johnson says. “You shouldn’t start a relationship program you’re not ready to support. If kids get burned, then more damage is done.”
In San Diego, Walker says the church that provides mentors for the county program holds monthly “mentor pow-wows” to help keep volunteers accountable. “We’re constantly staying connected with these people,” she says. “We want to make sure there’s one person in these kids’ lives who will be there, no matter what.”
Following are four examples of how youth workers created and sustained partnerships between secular and faith-based organizations.
San Diego, Calif.
The Approach: Step-Up is run by The Rock Church in San Diego and works in partnership with the Foster Youth Mentor Program run by San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Department (HHS). The department provides the names of foster youth who need mentoring and Step-Up provides volunteer mentors.
The 7,000-member church recruits volunteers and sends them through a review and ministry application process to make sure they’re serious about participating and willing to put in the required minimum eight hours per month with a youth. It then sends them to the county, where they undergo the standard application process: interviews with staff, background checks, interest-matching with kids, and a four-hour training session. The whole application process takes about two months, says Lisa Walker, the church member and HHS social worker who initiated the partnership.
Once approved, each volunteer is matched with a child who shares his or her interests. The church says the minimum commitment is one year for eight hours a month, although the goal is for the mentor to stick with the child until he or she ages out of foster care. No specific activities are required.
“Mentors may take the kids to the mall, movies, the beach,” Walker says. “One mentor taught a 16-year-old how to ride a bike. Another takes his kid surfing.” Some couples mentor together.
History and Organization: In early February 2004, Walker proposed to her church that it set up a program for members to serve as mentors to children in the San Diego foster care system. The church pastors approved the program, and it was up and running by June. Walker recruits most of her volunteers through ministry fairs that the church holds twice a year. She funnels the volunteers to the city’s Foster Youth Mentor Program. Seventy church members are matched with youth and 50 are waiting to be matched, Walker says.
Because she works both in social services and is a member of The Rock, Walker says she already knew the system and didn’t have as much trouble setting up a faith-government partnership as she might have without those connections.
Youth Served: Step-Up serves 6- to 17-year-olds who have been placed in group homes or with families.
Staff: Walker and another church volunteer handle recruitment, while HHS handles the background checks, training and youth/adult matches. The church runs a mentor support program to help the volunteers and to make sure they’re meeting their time commitments.
Funding: There is no cost to The Rock Church. Jeanette Kutchens, who oversees the county’s Foster Youth Mentor Program, says background checks cost $32 per mentor, which the county pays. The training sessions are run by paid staff as part of their regular duties.
Indicators of Success: At this early stage of the program’s development, all indicators are anecdotal. Walker points to the 120 church members who have become mentors or are waiting to be approved as evidence that members are interested in the program. She says some mentors have made the youths virtually part of their families, taking them to their homes for the holidays.
Walker believes many mentors take their volunteer efforts especially seriously because they are working through the church. “When you’re part of a ministry,” she says, “you’re making a commitment to God. There’s a lot more accountability.”
Girls Night Out
Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA
The Approach: Girls Night Out is designed to help girls “ride the emotional roller coaster of the teenage years” with a little more success and confidence, says Jennifer Sutherland, director of Youth, Family and Teen Programs for the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA.
Girls meet from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. each Tuesday throughout the school year at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Cedarburg, Wis., to participate in programs that address such issues as body image, dating, self-esteem, friendship, violence and peer pressure.
Volunteer instructors often visit the program to teach workshops on self-defense, yoga, Pilates, kick-boxing and nutrition. For example, the strength and conditioning coach for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team teaches the girls self-defense. The girls also help with the church’s volunteer programs, including food and clothing drives and programs for needy children.
History and Organization: The concept originated with the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, and many YMCAs in the area run the program. It started at the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA soon after Sutherland joined the organization about six years ago.
“We wanted the program to be more community-focused,” rather than “exclusively a YMCA program,” she says.
Immanuel Lutheran Church provides a central location for Girls Night Out, making it possible for girls from six different school districts to participate.
Immanuel Lutheran didn’t have an active youth ministry of its own, so Girls Night Out offered the church a way to reach out to young people. Many of the church’s youth parishioners participate, Sutherland says.
Youth Served: Girls Night Out is designed for girls in fifth to eighth grades and is open to all girls in the YWCA’s area; participants do not have to be members of the church or YMCA. Sutherland says about 50 girls are in the program now. Most are from suburban neighborhoods. Sutherland says she advertises the program in schools and in local newspapers.
Staff: Sutherland oversees Girls Night Out with help from three YMCA staff members. None of the four works on the program full-time. Community experts volunteer their time to conduct workshops and programs for the girls. The church provides meeting space each week and allows the girls to participate in the church’s community service projects, but does not have any adult parishioners volunteering for the program.
Funding: Because of the YMCA’s partnership with Immanuel Lutheran, program costs for Girls Night Out are minimal. The only regular expense is for the salaries of YMCA staff, which amounts to about $30 for each Tuesday meeting or around $1,000 per year.
Indicators of Success: Since Girls Night Out started six years ago, Sutherland says, participation has steadily grown, from about 30 the first year. She says that when she surveyed participants in the fall and spring several years ago, she found changes in their outlooks and personal interactions, “particularly in the area of making new friends and handling friendship conflicts.”
Mentoring Troubled Youth
Kinship of Greater Minneapolis
The Approach: Kinship of Greater Minneapolis was formed in 1954 by students at the Luther Seminary and evolved into a nondenominational community organization geared toward pairing at-risk young people with mentors, many of whom come from area churches. Dan Johnson, executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, says the nonprofit organization’s offices are located in three different churches – all of them Lutheran, though Kinship is an interdenominational organization – and it relies on churches to help recruit mentors and youth.
Eric Strand, a pastor at Edina Community Lutheran Church, says working with Kinship provides a way for members to fulfill the church’s mission “to give of ourselves for the sake of our neighbors.” He says mentors are recruited through the church’s mission fairs and word-of-mouth, and about six members actively participate in Kinship now.
Kinship tells mentor candidates that they must make at least a one-year commitment; it says its average mentor-child relationship lasts three years.
History and Organization: Kinship began when students at Luther Seminary set out to mentor troubled boys from single-parent families. The program branched off into other denominations and to serve girls, and began operating on a national level in 1967. Today, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis is an affiliate of the national nondenominational organization and was established as its own independent nonprofit organization in 1989. Since then, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis reports that it has served more than 800 kids.
While many of the mentors come from its church partners, Kinship also recruits through newspaper and radio advertising and, Johnson says with a laugh, “advertorials” that are taped to doors in public restrooms.
Youth Served: Kinship of Greater Minneapolis serves 5- to 15-year-olds in the counties surrounding Minneapolis. The organization says it serves about 300 children at any given time, with 150 or more on a waiting list.
Most youth come from single-parent homes and are referred by schools, social workers or counselors, Johnson says. He says kinship staff members typically perform needs assessments to see if the children require the additional adult support in their lives.
Staff: Kinship has 12 staff members, some of them part-time, and gets occasional help from AmeriCorps workers, who help coordinate the mentor program.
Funding: The annual budget is $480,000. Johnson says most of the organization’s funding comes from individual donations. Institutional funders include the Cargill and General Mills foundations, and the Kinship gets $75,000 from the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program.
Indicators of Success: Johnson says Kinship takes its mentoring program very seriously, and points to Kinship’s annual survey for every child that enters the program. The survey is filled out by parents, mentors and youths.
According to Kinship’s most recent surveys, conducted in 2004 and 2005, 85 percent of children participating in the program for one year felt they had another caring adult in their lives as a result, and 93 percent said they had practiced new skills and activities because of the mentoring relationship. There has been no independent evaluation or tracking of youth after they leave.
Hoops for Hope
The Approach: Hoops for Hope aims to engage at-risk kids through something that most kids are naturally excited about: sports. Hoops for Hope is one aspect of a city-wide program known as Baltimore Rising, which is geared toward youth who have criminal records or are at risk of being victims of violence.
Jamaal Moses, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families, says the city set out to capitalize on adolescents’ interest in sports by having the Recreation and Parks Department establish a partnership with local churches to create basketball leagues. The six leagues, with about eight teams each, typically practice and play at YMCAs and churches, and most of the coaches come from the churches.
“Our goal here was to seed the programs and then let the communities continue them on their own,” Moses says. Knowing that such programs can disappear after a new mayor takes office, Moses got churches involved to help insure that the programs keep going, no matter who’s running Baltimore down the road.
“That’s the biggest benefit – that the churches will be here when I’m gone and when the mayor [Martin O’Malley] is gone.”
History and Organization: The Hoops for Hope program started in 2001, about two years after the umbrella program, Baltimore Rising, began in response to youth violence and victimization. Moses says a lot of churches were already running after-school programs, so the basketball leagues fit right in. He says the churches have taken ownership of the leagues to the point where the city is directly involved in just two of them.
Youth Served: Hoops for Hope offers basketball leagues for youth ages 12 to 14 and 15 to 17. The city refers youth to the program, and most have been involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, Moses says. Other youth are recruited by the churches themselves.
Leagues run during the school year, and there are also special summertime leagues and tournaments during the Christmas and spring breaks. About 200 kids participate each time the leagues are active, Moses says.
He says he has no trouble getting kids to play. “The problem,” he says, “is not having enough basketball leagues.”
Staff: Hoops for Hope is run primarily by volunteer coaches and league coordinators from area churches. One recreation department employee, Mark Byrd, helps the church leagues secure funding and organizes leagues and tournaments during summer and winter school breaks.
Funding: Moses says the recreation department spends about $20,000 a year to purchase T-shirts for the players, to pay for referees and to provide food at tournaments.
In addition, Moses says the department has a “benefits package” whereby “if a church or other community organization helps us recruit mentors and coaches, they can get funding for their sports or mentor programs.”
Indicators of Success: Moses believes Hoops for Hope and other Baltimore Rising programs are making a difference. “If we have a decrease in arrests in an area where basketball leagues are happening, we feel we’re being successful,” he says.
While Moses says the Office for Children, Youth and Families doesn’t have data specifically related to the success of Hoops for Hope, the office does track progress by those in the city’s 20-odd youth programs. He says most of those youth show better grades and school attendance and few re-arrests.