When they retire, some seniors take up travelling; others pick up golf. But since September 2008, seniors from Portage Avenue Church (PAC) have been picking up a dozen 9−16-year-old inner-city children every other Thursday night for supper.
After sharing a meal prepared by one of PAC’s small groups, they break into their groups of two “elders” with two or three “youngers” for an activity − woodworking, sewing, baking, playing board games, or flying remote control airplanes. PAC associate pastor Edgar French equips elders with a question and Bible passage on a nightly theme to use in conversation.
The “Elders and Youngers” program is the brainchild of PAC member and Living Bible Explorer’s (LBE) volunteer Cheryl Penner. Three years ago, a retired voice teacher from PAC, Rita Schmidt, began offering free voice lessons to Jasmine, after Penner connected her with the 10-year-old LBE club regular. “Jasmine’s grandpa was able to drive her to Rita’s house; then he would stay and chat with Rita’s husband,” says Penner. “It was neat how the relationships formed.”
“The best part about it for me was when Jasmine told me she’d sung in a talent show at her school: she had a standing ovation!” Penner recalls. “She said, ‘My confidence is so much higher.’ She was glowing!” For Jasmine, writing music has become a way of exploring faith. “She won’t necessarily talk to me a lot about her faith,” Penner says, “but it’s interesting because she tells me the lyrics of her songs, and they’re totally faith-inspired.”
Love, wisdom, and time to give
Two years ago, for her social work degree at Booth College, Penner had an assignment: design a program where the church meets a need in the community. “At LBE, I saw how much it helped the kids to have an adult outside of their situation who showed care and built a relationship with them. I wanted to meet with all the kids one-on-one.” Penner realized she and other LBE volunteers were serving at their limit. But, “we have an older population in our church,” says Penner – seniors with love, wisdom, and time to give. With the success of Schmidt and Jasmine’s relationship “brewing around” in her mind, she designed a proposal to connect PAC seniors with LBE kids needing mentors.
French approached the small groups with Penner’s idea and formed a core group of seven mentors. “We realized that in programs like LBE, after kids reach a certain age there’s a disconnect with LBE and the Christian community,” says French. “We sat down with [LBE’s] staff and came up with a goal to connect with kids who don’t have a godly influence in their families.”
This year, elders invited guardians and siblings to join the youngers for a family night, including a magic show by PAC member Michael Vandenenden. For their wind-up, elders Jack and Janice Penner − Cheryl’s parents, who met as LBE club leaders in the 70s − hosted a wiener roast at their home. And elders seek to build relationship outside the group: Janice has taken her girls to the zoo and connected with them on Facebook.
French says it’s a “win-win situation: There are people here who continue to look for how their faith can be meaningful and how they can impact those outside the church.” And as Cheryl Penner says, “Every kid needs special attention.”