JOPLIN – Church and public schools don’t mix? Don’t tell that to Joplin Public Schools.
Churches have been partnering with students and classes with dramatic results since 2010 in a school district that has had some ups and downs in recent years. The program is called Bright Futures and it simply connects the community to its schools. Local churches of all faiths are just one aspect of Bright Futures, which also brings together businesses, parents, and social services to benefit the local schools.
“The church participation is one of the reasons this has been successful,” said Steve Patterson, director of missions for Spring River Association and faith-based chairman for Bright Futures. “They’re able to provide the numbers of volunteers this requires. Everyone else was already in the schools; this was the only piece missing.”
Though Bright Futures began in Joplin, its openness to the help of the church and its success is spreading to surrounding districts.
“It was originally 11 communities there locally, and now it’s moving out to different states,” Patterson said. “I’m supposed to travel to Virginia soon to present it there. And there’s interest in Oklahoma and Kansas.”
The idea is to meet students’ needs before they come to the classroom, so they can focus on academics. Bright Futures meets material and physical needs, but also matches mentors with students and brings in “lunch buddies” to spend 20 minutes a week with student at lunch time. Physical needs range from a pair of shoes to beds to a hot water heater.
“They had 15 lunch buddies before we were asked, and it went to 150,” Patterson said. “They had nine [mentors] for 7,000 students and it went to 90.”
Bright Futures posts the needs on Facebook and gets responses almost immediately.
“Our goal is to see every need met within 24 hours,” Patterson said. “Thus far, we’ve been able to do that in all but one case where they needed a Mandarin Chinese interpreter and that took us a few days. Our quickest time to meet a need was 11 seconds, but it usually takes two or three hours.
Though it’s far from a direct evangelistic outreach, the relationships built naturally led to conversations of the gospel.
“We can’t proselytize,” Patterson said, “but you know as well as I do that when you go and serve people, they want to know why. When they ask why, we tell them why. And it’s the teachers that are asking questions.”
Churches’ involvement with Bright Futures was fortuitous when the May 22, 2011 tornado hit, because a working relationship had already been formed with the schools, enabling them to cooperate that much quicker in recovery.
“They reached out and said ‘Come help us!’” Patterson said. “I said ‘I’ll get you volunteers and we’ll get it done.’ They wanted to know where the volunteers would come from, and I said ‘I don’t know, I haven’t asked God yet. But they’ll be here.’”