When associate pastor Paul Miller first became a Kids Hope USA mentor to a child named Simon, the boy was in such frequent fights that he had a nearly permanent place in the principal's office. Simon's life has begun to change in the two-and-a-half years that he's met with Miller, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

"Sometimes we go over his homework, sometimes we play games or read books. Mostly we just talk," Miller says. "The principal told me that Simon has done a complete about-face in his respect for his peers, for authority, and for himself. All I do is show up each week. I believe in him and pay attention to him. Every week we end our time together the same way: I tell Simon he is a good kid, and he tells me he will do his best. I am amazed how God uses that hour in such big ways."

When Virgil Gulker developed Kids Hope to help at-risk children in public schools, he asked police, teachers, clergy, and social workers what the church could do for at-risk kids (many of whom live in impoverished and single-parent households). The resounding answer: What children need most is a stable relationship with a caring adult.

Gulker started Kids Hope in 1995 with three churches and schools in southwestern Michigan. Today 217 programs in 27 states provide mentors to about 3,800 children. Gulker connects a church with a neighboring elementary school, and church members become one-on-one mentors to at-risk students. A mentor spends one hour a week with a child—tutoring, helping with homework, playing, or just visiting. But the underlying purpose of the hour is to create a friendship with an adult that brings consistency to a child's life.

In nine school districts, all public elementary schools are matched with Kids Hope churches, and seven school districts have requested a church for every school. The organization grows consistently, adding about two programs each month. Kids Hope plans to have 5,000 churches serving 100,000 children by 2010.

Fight or flight

Mentoring relationships transform children. Consider Annie, a student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who has five family members in prison. When school began last year, Annie was withdrawn and doing very little school work. After four months with a mentor, she is performing above the class average in all subjects.

"Principals tell us that between 98 and 100 percent of students in these adult-child relationships show significant improvement in academic performance and attitude," Gulker says.

A consistent and nurturing relationship with a mentor fosters a child's ability to learn. "Research shows that children in unstable environments are left with two physiological responses: fight or flight," says Joseph Loconte, a fellow of the Heritage Foundation. "Only emotional stability allows brain function to improve and learning to take place."

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Educators such as Carmen Hannah, principal of Van Raalte Elementary School in Holland, Michigan, say that mentoring also helps children stop bad behavior. Says Hannah, whose school has the largest Kids Hope program in the nation: "The pride our students show in their work and their increased motivation for learning gives them so much confidence that they no longer need to fool around or be belligerent to get their need for attention fulfilled."

Gulker likes to tell the story of Jason, a five-year-old kindergartner who had been arrested 25 times for arson. Jason had attended a correctional school for pyromaniacs, but he continued to set fires. "The boy is just searching for proof that someone cares about him," said the principal at the correctional school. A year later the principal and the pastor of the church offering Kids Hope at his school invited Gulker to speak to other local principals. He opened by asking about the young arsonist.

"That child is in our Kids Hope program," said the principal.

"What?" asked the pastor, "Who in my church is working with him?"

"You are," said the principal, "and you have changed his life."

Not knowing the worst about the boy he befriended, the mentor had expected the best and got it. Jason is now a well-adjusted member of his class and an excellent student.

Kids Hope's strongest champions are principals and teachers who see how it offers a fresh start to disadvantaged children. Thirteen principals in Terre Haute, Indiana, recently asked 150 pastors to provide mentors for their schools.

Demanding commitment

Educators say the program builds faithfulness and stability among mentors and students. "My children face abandonment issues constantly," says Glenda O'Banion, a school principal in Hammond, Louisiana, "and they've been abandoned by people who said 'We care.' I'm an old lady, and I've been in education for 30 years. This is the first program I've seen carry through on all the principles they first stated they would do. I've never seen anything like this." She wants mentors for 300 of the 412 poor kids in her school. "We're not interested in good intentions," Gulker says. "We put extraordinary emphasis on the commitment the church needs to make to the child." A church participating in Kids Hope must:

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  • Restrict its outreach to one public elementary school in its neighborhood.

  • Provide the school with at least ten mentors and recruit more mentors as the program develops. Mentors undergo an eight-step screening, including a criminal history check.

  • Involve its pastor as a mentor or prayer partner.

  • Hire a half-time program director onto the church staff. Kids Hope's national office trains the director, who in turn trains mentors and prayer partners. Smaller churches that cannot afford a paid position give their directors a modest stipend or honorarium.

  • Respect the separation of church and state. The national organization trains mentors to understand that they may not evangelize on school grounds. The organization respects the school administrators' obligation to enforce church-state separation.

This last requirement, however, does not prevent Kids Hope church members from sharing their faith with children and their families. With parents' permission, a mentor may invite a child to events and activities at the church. A mentor who shows the love of Christ at the school is free to speak about God at church. Kids Hope directors advise school administrators that evangelism may occur in church settings.

The church designates a behind-the-scenes prayer partner for each mentor-child relationship. "While prayer is not allowed in public schools," says Gulker, "Kids Hope has 3,800 prayer partners infusing schools with prayer each week."

Churches are discovering that caring for kids opens the way for reaching their parents and siblings. Consider the spiritual impact on Colton, a six-year-old first-grader, and Susan, his mom. The boy had been abused by a disappearing dad and suffered with Attention Deficit Disorder. Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, paired Colton with Herk Bos, a retired man. The relationship affected both of their lives, but after five years, Bos died. Now in seventh grade, Colton wrote this memorial to honor him:

Mr. Bos was not only my mentor but my best friend! Some of my favorite memories are when we visited his childhood farm so he could show me where he fished as a child. He taught me how to fillet a fish, set a swivel hook, and how to bait a crawfish. … He taught me to be a master gardener but most importantly to love and trust in the lord with all my heart!

Herk Bos's care persuaded Susan, Colton's mother, to accept Christ and to join the church. Recently she helped establish a Bible study that attracts a dozen Kids Hope moms to church every Wednesday.

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"Despite compelling evidence that most people accept Christ by age 18," says Gulker, "many churches continue to put the bulk of their efforts in programs for people 20 or older. But by reaching at-risk children Kids Hope gives churches a proven strategy and a relational platform to reach their neighbors in the name of Christ."

Bert Ghezzi is the editorial director of Servant Publications. For more information on Kids Hope, visit www.kidshopeusa.org or call 866.546.3580.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today is:

Virgil Gulker: Calling a Child by Name | God roams America's public schools looking for us.

The official Kids Hope website includes the group's mission and testimonial stories.

For more Christianity Today stories on missions and ministries and youth, see our archives.

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