50 years of Northern exposure
WASILLA, Alaska — This state known for its natural beauty,…
When public schools in Alaska’s capital of Juneau moved to virtual classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some students were put in a dire learning situation.
While the school district and Alaska Native organizations provided tablet computers, poorer children couldn’t access lessons because they lack home internet.
Related: 50 years of Northern exposure
“That (online) model doesn’t work for a very large number of families that attend our school,” said Alex Newton, the counselor at Glacier Valley Elementary, which receives Title 1 federal funding because of its high poverty level.
Enter the Juneau Church of Christ, a 100-member congregation just a block from the school.
The church opened its annex building to provide Wi-Fi and tutoring for Glacier Valley students, who are required to wear masks and maintain 6 feet of social distance.
Multiple congregations across the nation — from the Eugene Church of Christ in Oregon to the Overland Park Church of Christ in Kansas to the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas — have helped in a similar way since the novel coronavirus disrupted normal instruction.
Four mornings per week, six to 10 children connect to classes via Zoom and work on assignments at the Juneau church.
“It’s a really hands-on experience, and a lot of these kids need one-on-one help.”
Members of the Alaska congregation help students with homework as well as arts, crafts and puzzles, while the church furnishes bottled water and snacks.
“It’s a really hands-on experience, and a lot of these kids need one-on-one help,” said volunteer Meghan Johnson, a church member whose daughter, Naomi, is a Glacier Valley fourth-grader.
Students arrive at 8 a.m. each weekday except Wednesday, an off day on the district’s online school calendar. When the children head home at 11:30 a.m., the volunteers “thoroughly clean” the tables, chairs and restrooms, deacon Kevin Henderson said.
Henderson, a Juneau member since 1981, worked with Newton, the school counselor, to develop the educational program.
Even if the outreach effort is just temporary, Henderson prays it will foster stronger ties between the church and the school.
“For 50 to 60 years, our church has been located in this neighborhood,” said Henderson, whose wife, Janet, grew up in the congregation. “Vacation Bible School might reach out to the children once a year, but it seems like we just take up space in the neighborhood, and we’re not involved in the neighborhood.”
A retired state employee, the 63-year-old Henderson oversees the church’s worship ministry and serves as its “techno-wizard,” as one fellow Christian describes him.
He’s also a certified bicycle mechanic who has connected with children for years by fixing bikes and helping with various faith-based summer lunch programs.
When regular school is in session, he works as a substitute teacher at Glacier Valley, where his granddaughter, Amaya, is a fourth-grader.
“You just have to walk into the school and spend a little time, and you see a number of kids who are struggling at home,” he said.
“You just have to walk into the school and spend a little time, and you see a number of kids who are struggling at home.”
In a neighborhood that mixes single-family homes and apartment complexes, Glacier Valley has a diverse student body with sizable numbers of Alaska Natives and Asian-Pacific Islanders.
Two other church members teach full time at the school, and another serves as a paraeducator. Moreover, Meghan Johnson directs an after-school program called JAMM — Juneau Alaska Music Matters.
Given all those connections, Henderson believes the church has an opportunity — and an obligation — to build long-term relationships with students and their families.
Scriptures such as Matthew 19:14 motivate him, he said. In that verse, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
“These kids are God’s creation that have souls and lives and hearts that need to be filled,” Henderson said. “Even in this simple secular thing we are doing, providing the internet and things, we are doing what we can.”
If the conversations turn to faith, that’s an extra blessing, he said. Already, he said, one student asked, “Is there a heaven? Is there a God?”
“It’s making an incredible difference right now for these kids.”
For the school counselor, who works alongside the church volunteers, the program is about molding young minds, not anything spiritual.
Newton describes himself as a religious “none” who leans toward agnostic. But he said he’s extremely grateful for the Juneau church opening its doors.
“It’s making an incredible difference right now for these kids,” he said.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.