Pacific Northwest Church Opens Doors, Avenues for E-Learning Students
By Carl Stagner
Persevering through the pandemic, students, parents, teachers, and school administrators everywhere have proven profoundly persistent and pliable. Accepting the wide variety of changes, they nevertheless pray earnestly that online, distance learning will not be a perpetual part of the “new normal.” Thankfully, as long as virtual learning is a factor, the community of Walla Walla, Washington, can be certain the local Church of God congregation will be there for them.
The unknown was hardest to handle in the days leading up to what would have typically been the start of the fall semester. School administrators and government officials were tied up building the bridge they would walk across, while teachers and parents were left wondering how they were going to make it all work. In view of a foreseeable future marked by e-learning, Blue Mountain Community Church determined they had to do something. Sara Mahan, the church’s children’s ministry director, remembers the prevalent sentiment at the time.
“The focus to help kids during distance learning seemed to be all on elementary-aged kids,” she says. “We could see that middle-schoolers were an at-risk group who may not be mature enough to be home alone, but were expected to, as there were not other options for parents in our area.”
Working parents of middle school students, like those of younger children, have often found themselves in a bind this year, trying to find a place with adult supervision (and encouragement) for e-learning to take place safely and successfully. Pandemic restrictions have shut down local public school campuses completely, not only canceling classes, but leaving at-risk students without guidance counselors and trusted school staff. With little to no outside assistance, Blue Mountain Community Church launched Study Spot, a ministry which has become a service to students, a blessing to parents, a tremendous support to teachers, a partner to administrators, and a valuable asset to the community.
“Distance learning is hard,” Sara reflects. “The kids are having a hard time connecting virtually to their work, their teachers, and their classmates. Being at Study Spot changes the dynamic for them as they’re at least in the same room with other kids their age. Yes, they’re still learning on Zoom, but they have two district ‘guest teachers’ in person to ask questions of and get help from.”
Indeed, Study Spot has welcomed teachers into the mix. From the platform the church had with its existing day school, the church’s newly opened Study Spot, with a promise simply to be a “safe place for middle-schoolers,” attracted the attention of the school district. A week before school resumed, the school district and teacher’s union agreed to send “guest teachers” to local childcare facilities. From 8 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, these guest teachers have proven extremely helpful, as have the volunteers from the church and community, but not entirely in expected ways.
“At first,” Sara recounts, “we had [our own] ideas of what volunteers would do, like tutor kids or assist in group work. But distance learning isn’t really conducive to that. What we are finding is that the kids just need positive influence in their lives, people who are willing to show up for them even when it’s not glamourous or easy. These kids are struggling due to a lack of social time and relationship with friends. I can see what impact we are having on them; they keep coming back day after day.”
The gap Blue Mountain has bridged covers more than academics. These students have revealed their innate need for relationship—for proximity to others.
“I tried to prompt one of our middle-schoolers to get his work finished before the weekend, so he didn’t have to worry about it on his days off,” Sara explains. “He replied that he never gets to see his friends when he’s away from Study Spot, so he’d rather do his work on the weekend and spend time with his friends while he had the chance. These kids are desperate for the time together in person.”
Middle school principals, assistant principals, and guidance counselors have been among the adult drop-in guests of Study Spot since its opening. These adult mentors—heroes to many of the students—come wanting only to see their students again. All have expressed immense gratitude for the program. Sure, there is risk associated with gathering together each day with multiple adults and students. But Blue Mountain Community Church and its community have determined the risk of allowing students to fall through the cracks is so much greater. And, since the program began, a local bank partnered with Study Spot to supply snacks, a Walmart Community Grant was awarded, and the local rotary club offered assistance. Indeed, the community is paying attention to what Blue Mountain Community Church is doing!
“Before Study Spot was created,” Sara recalls, “the schools kept any assistance from our church at a safe distance. We would donate school supplies annually, advertise our fall harvest carnival and summer sports camp through distributed flyers, but that was as close as we got to partnering with them. Study Spot has opened a door wide open that we once only had a foothold in.”
The Chapter 4 Institute, a growing cohort-based Church of God leadership experience that creates passion for spiritual and social renewal, is credited largely as the impetus behind Study Spot. As the Church of God along the West Coast already knows, and as the broader Movement is beginning to learn, Chapter 4 is inspiring and equipping the local church to come alongside their communities as essential allies, striving to “change the story” in their communities. Sara and Blue Mountain’s head pastor Jim Snyder participate in the leadership experience, and were brainstorming ways their church could partner with the community when the idea to meet the very real needs of students, families, and teachers amid the pandemic rose to the top.
“Church doesn’t start and end on a Sunday,” Sara reflects. “Our church is a community church and, at our core, we are committed to living up to that name. I think what Chapter 4 is teaching us is that in the church we tend to create our own agenda and, with our own narrow view, we come up with ways we can fix and patch the hurt and suffering around us. But it’s time to stop coming up with our own solutions and start listening to, and partnering with, others who are doing it already.”
Serving their community was and is the goal of Study Spot. Yet ten or more students from Study Spot have joined the church youth group. Most of the students who attend Study Spot are not from the congregation.
Pastor Jim concludes, “When our community announced distance learning for all students, it was a call to action—we knew we couldn’t just sit back and wait for it to pass. We have a large facility that was sitting unused, and we knew we could create a safe environment for at least some students. We asked for a seat at the table, and offered our help for an unserved segment of our community. It was well-received right out of the gate. Study Spot is one way Blue Mountain Community Church is trying to live out love in Walla Walla.”
Learn more about how Church of God congregations are changing the story in their communities—and find out how to get involved—at www.jesusisthesubject.org/change-the-story. Learn more about Chapter 4 at www.jesusisthesubject.org/chapter4.
Feature (top) photo courtesy Jeremy Burnham, Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Washington). Read Burnham’s article about Study Spot, published on September 1, 2020.