Study Spot Changes the Story in Walla Walla
By Julie Campbell
Making meaningful connections within our communities often involves stepping outside of our comfort zones. That’s exactly what Blue Mountain Community Church in Walla Walla, Washington, did during last school year when it launched Study Spot, a distance-learning support program for middle schoolers. When schools in their area shut down, the church identified middle school students as an at-risk group, with many not mature enough to be home alone doing their distance learning, yet having parents who had to go to work.
That’s when Sara Mahan, the church’s children’s ministry director, knew she had to do something. “Creating this program with Jim Snyder (Blue Mountain’s head pastor) was definitely out of my comfort zone, and out of our staff’s comfort zone,” she explained. “It was disruptive to our weekly schedule and added a lot to our plates when we were already juggling COVID protocols and online streaming our services. We were all experiencing learning curves. But our staff and volunteers were flexible and stepped up when we needed them.”
The church created a safe space for middle school students to come during the day, work on their distance learning, and even have access to two districts’ “guest teachers” to ask questions of and get help from in-person.
As a result, the church was recognized in May as a “Partner in Learning of the Year” by Walla Walla Public Schools.
“This was a great accomplishment for our church, as I believe it broke down barriers between the schools and churches,” Sara said. “Many lead administrators came to Study Spot to visit with the kids and checked in on them. I believe they see us now as a true community partner and that our doors are open, and we are ready to assist with our community’s needs. I had a parent say, ‘Wow, you really are a church for our community!’”
Although the Study Spot program was discontinued when students returned to in-person learning on February 16 of this year, the impact the program has made is eternal. “Many kids who attended Study Spot felt safe and welcomed in our church and continue to come for our Youth Wednesday evening gatherings,” Sarah noted.
The lessons learned by Sara and many of the Study Spot staff and volunteers will be lasting, as well.
“I learned that middle schoolers are sometimes hard to take care of, but showing up for them every day made a big difference in their lives,” she said. “Many of the kids who showed up to Study Spot were the ones who didn’t have a safe home environment, didn’t have much, if any, responsible parental care, or someone rooting for them or encouraging them. That’s why it meant so much when they would return day after day. It was an incredible opportunity to show them how much Jesus loves them, how much we love them, and that we were there for them in a really difficult time.”
Going forward, Sara believes this experience will give the church an even greater vision for reaching their community.
“I hope that in the future we can be as creative when we see a problem in our community, that we can see past the discomfort and see the reward of doing what God is calling us to do—no matter if it is inconvenient or out of our comfort zone,” Sara explained. “We are good at opening our doors to our community, and I want that legacy to continue.”
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.
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.
Julie Campbell is an editor at Warner Christian Resources (formerly Warner Press) and a freelance journalist. A former city girl from Chicago, she enjoys country life with her husband, Russ, on a five-acre apple orchard in Madison County, Indiana. She is a blessed mom of three wonderful young adult children and one very spoiled white boxer.