During an appreciation breakfast when Eastway Elementary School Principal Star Sampson said the school’s relationship with the Summit Church in Durham had moved beyond partnership to friendship, teachers quickly indicated it was even deeper.
“Family,” they shouted almost in unison.
Sampson immediately agreed that Summit members have helped the school in so many ways and become so close to faculty, staff and students they are like family.
Chris Gaynor, worship pastor at Summit Church, said he knew the relationship had moved to a new level when Sampson called him after a choir member died. She wanted to know the family’s address so the school could send its condolences.
At the appreciation breakfast choir members sponsored for school teachers and staff Aug. 20 the signs of that relationship were numerous.
Before food was served, Gaynor walked around the school and heard how teachers liked their rooms, freshly painted by church members. A wall in each of the rooms was painted a light shade of yellow, blue, orange or green to offset the somber gray of the other walls.
Gaynor said in an interview that church members are active in the elementary school to show Christ’s love.
They offer to pray for the teachers and staff and answer questions when asked why they’re helping.
“Ultimately, yes, we want to share the gospel with people, but we’re not here to try to have a Christian school,” Gaynor said. “We’re trying to demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ and let that speak.”
Dorcas left people in tears
Gaynor said efforts like the 150-member choir’s ministry at the school are the result of a message by Summit pastor J.D. Greear, who read a Bible passage about how people wept when Dorcas was gone.
He asked if anyone would weep if the church was gone. Greear is a member of the Baptist State Convention Board of Directors and of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Force.
The partnership started several years ago when a neighbor who teaches English as a second language at Eastway asked Gaynor if the church could help a Hispanic family with a three-year-old that had been hit by a car on Halloween night.
The mother cooked to earn money. While she was with her child in the hospital, the family struggled.
The congregation got behind the family in several ways, and later was asked to help in similar circumstances.
“We started by responding to very specific needs,” he said. “Out of that we were able to build a relationship.”
Eventually, choir members came and talked with Sampson about the needs at the school.
Their first project was an “Extreme Makeover” of the teachers’ lounge and faculty bathrooms, Gaynor said.
Three years later, teachers still take pride in the lounge, he said.
Choir members also pulled staples out of corkboards, scraped tape off walls and redecorated the principal’s office. They held a carnival for the school with inflatable games and hot dogs.
Food and clothing
Gaynor said a high percentage of students get free or reduced lunches. Because some kids wear the same clothes day after day, or have no coat or wear shoes that don’t fit, the church has held two clothing drives.
Church members were asked to donate clothes they would gladly give Jesus if He showed up at their door, Gaynor said.
Church members also filled about 500 boxes with food to give to school families. The families could get a box then go to the gym to look for clothes.
“It looked like a clothing store,” Gaynor said. “We gave out tons of clothes.”
One year the school didn’t have enough money to put on a Christmas play. The choir brought refreshments and sang with the kids.
The church also gives the teachers supplies.
Choir members start each year by providing breakfast for faculty and staff.
Each year ends with a luncheon.
About a dozen choir members mingled with teachers at the start-of-the-year breakfast Aug. 20. Gaynor told the teachers there was a bag of supplies for each classroom. The teachers could also take two reams of paper, which he said was “kind of like gold” at the school.
In previous years, the church also painted murals and decorated the lunchroom and painted an Eagle logo on the wall of the gymnasium. Church members have also collected money to fund student field trips.
About 30 choir members also adopted teachers last year, serving as class moms. After the breakfast, teachers rushed to sign up their classes to be adopted this year.
Cortnee Pierce, who has been at Summit Church for about six years and sings alto in the choir, was in a group that adopted a kindergarten class last year. The group included her husband Jeremy, Todd Gronewald, Jed Gronewald and Ashley Christian.
Pierce, a researcher at Duke University Medical Center, was so moved by the experience that she is going to coordinate the choir’s efforts this year.
“I am passionate about this,” she said. “I love it.”
Pierce said she and Christian loved and nurtured the kids while the three men served as mentors for the students.
“A lot of them don’t have fathers,” Pierce said.
The group went on field trips and helped out in other ways. Pierce said her mother and her uncle, who is a chef, cooked a Thanksgiving meal for students in the class and their families.
Pierce especially recalls the changes in one little girl who was withdrawn at the beginning of the year.
“At the end of the school year, she was talking, and she was starting to read,” Pierce said. “It was amazing.”
Carly Lewis and Erin Dawson are team teachers for a third-grade class at Eastway.
They spoke highly about the help they received last year.
Lewis said the church’s consistency shows that the congregation is “not just on a good-will kick.”
She appreciates the church’s persistent support.
“A lot of times if you’re in a school like this you feel like you’re on your own,” she said.
“It’s was just knowing somebody had your back if you need something,” Lewis added.
Sampson, who has been principal at Eastway for five years, said the church’s efforts have made a “tremendous impact” on the school.
“They are doers,” she said. “They just support us in so many ways.”
Sampson said the church’s efforts have played a large role in the school’s improving academic performance.
Eastway is meeting the state and federal guidelines for schools making progress in all of its 21 subgroups, she said.
Sampson credits the church’s participation in building stronger ties between the school, the families and the community.
The staff and children at the school are happier because the church has made the school campus beautiful, Sampson said.
“It’s motivating,” she said. “They go the extra mile.”
The choir members handle most any request the school has, Sampson said. They have helped the teachers, the staff, the students and the families, she said.
“We’ve built a relationship,” she said. “We love them, and we know they love us.
“I hope the partnership never ends.”
Good news spreads
Word about the church’s efforts has spread, inside the church and out. When church representatives talked to the principal of another middle school, he was initially hesitant.
But his attitude changed when he learned they were the Summit Church that was helping Eastway. Gaynor said about 13 other schools have asked the church to help them.
Gaynor said choir members have already been talking to teachers at Eastway about their needs.
When he mentioned getting sports equipment for the older grades, teachers cheered.
When he talked about the possibility of hanging a curtain in front of the stage in the gym to make it easier for students to perform plays, one teacher jumped up and down and spun around with joy.
The church also hopes to buy computers so the school can implement a new computer-based math curriculum.
“If you ask anybody in the choir, ‘What’s your community ministry?’ they’d say ‘Eastway,’” Gaynor said.
At the year-ending luncheon last year, teacher after teacher asked Gaynor, “Are you going to be back next year?”
At the breakfast this year, teacher after teacher stood to thank the church members for what they’ve done to help the school.
Gaynor said the church has a dream to “do something big for the school.” Church members are looking for a way to “raise a significant amount of money,” he said.
“We want to turn Eastway into a place that teachers are fighting to get over here,” he said.
Gaynor said the choir wants to help create an environment where the teachers can use their gifts to help the students grow up to become respected members of the community.
“We’re here, not to advance us, but to help them succeed,” he said. “They know what we stand for as a church, but also know we’re committed to help them.”