When I was growing up, my family was always involved in outreach to anyone who needed help, especially to the Vietnamese refugees who were coming to Canada. As a child I wanted to be a missionary, but as I reached my teens I realized I really enjoyed working with children. When I turned 16 and got my driver's licence, I started picking up half-a-dozen kids each Sunday and taking them to church in our family's Suburban.
When I started studying at Redeemer College, I heard about an outreach that they did with inner-city children in Hamilton. I was so shy that I still remember the huge amount of courage it took to go by myself to the meeting about this. But I did, and I became involved with the Kids' Club in downtown Hamilton. I did this for all four years, and learned a lot. By my last year I was leading the program with another girl. I still fondly remember the kids there, especially my challenging but fun group of 13-year-old boys! While at Redeemer I also spent two summers working at the Scott Mission in downtown Toronto. We ran a day camp for inner-city kids there, which was exhausting, but also very rewarding.
I graduated from Redeemer with my Bachelor's degree in Psychology, knowing that I still wanted to be missionary - to at-risk kids. I moved to Toronto, and began working at another downtown Toronto mission, doing outreach to kids and families in several high-need areas, including Alexandra Park, where I ran an after-school program. When that position ended a year later, I still kept in touch with the kids and families I had worked with, especially in Alexandra Park, which was not far from where I lived.
I had been helping a small church group that met in the Alexandra Park Community Centre on Sunday evenings. This congregation - an outreach of an Anglican church- consisted of maybe 10 or 12 people, mostly elderly ladies, and a couple of kids. They did not know what to do when a large group of very unruly children suddenly began "attending!" They asked for my help in running some kind of Sunday School for these kids. This did not last long, as the church was evicted from the community centre (religious groups were no longer allowed). Then Richard Watters, one of volunteers from the Anglican church, asked me if I had heard of Bill Wilson, and his KIDS Church in New York City (Metro Ministries). When I looked into this I thought it was amazing. Richard thought we should start something like that in Alexandra Park, since there were so many un-churched kids.
The programs we are concentrating on now are the Saturday morning KIDS Church, the Thursday evening door-to-door visitation of the families, mentoring youth as LITs (leaders-in-training), taking children on outings, and helping send them to camp. We have around 5 committed volunteers, including a former KIDS Church kid who is now in university, as well as at least half-a-dozen LITs.
There have been many joys and sorrow over the past 18 or 19 years. There have been extremely difficult things to deal with, including house fires, shootings, arrests, addictions, serious illnesses, etc. Some of these things have resulted in deaths - including those of children, teens, and quite a few parents. It's also hard to lose children when they suddenly move away or are taken into foster care and we never see them again. Even more difficult is seeing kids go down the wrong path as they get older. But we never lose hope that they will eventually turn around - God says His Word will not return to Him empty (Isaiah 55:10-11).
I had formed good relationships with many kids and families in the area, so it was not hard to round up children for KIDS Church. Richard ordered curriculum from Metro Ministries, and although we didn't have money or a building, we started a Saturday morning KIDS Church under a picnic shelter on the Felecian Sisters' property, in the summer of 1993. We had both asked a few people we know to help, including my roommate, Tamara Bartlett, and a couple of Christian young people from the neighbourhood. When the weather grew colder, the Sisters took pity on us and let us use their building, the St. Felix Centre. Our weekly attendance grew from 16 kids on the first day to about 60 or 70 within the next year or so. (We left St. Felix Centre because of renovations around 1997 or 98, and then when the building we were using was torn down a few years later we went back to St. Felix.) Richard and Tammy and the other volunteers eventually moved on, but others have taken their place.
Pat Paas, my pastor at All Nations Christian Fellowship (where I also brought kids on Sundays) encouraged me to make this ministry into a job (I was doing secretarial work at the time). He helped me apply for a start-up grant from the Christian Reformed Church's "Operation Manna," and I began fundraising as well. I don't enjoy fundraising (or public speaking!), and never thought I would do it, but I really saw the need for a full-time ministry to these kids.
With the funding I could quit my secretarial job, and I began doing more programs with the kids. We now had a girls' Bible Study group after school, a boys' sports program, and later a youth group. I also spent a lot of time visiting kids in their homes, taking them on outings, and arranging (and raising funds) to send them to camp. When I met my husband -- through one of the kids -- he was also dragged along. When our first child was born, I just took her along to all the programs, and I've done so with each of our four kids. As I got busier with our own family, and we moved further from downtown, I did have to reduce the amount of time spent in Alexandra Park.
I still keep close contact with many of these former KIDS Church kids, although they are scattered all over the place, many now well into their 20s. We are still involved with helping those who need help, and this has included things like bailing young people out of jail (or trying to), and letting people stay with our family.
It is encouraging when young adults come back to us after many years to say thank you for being there for them when they were kids. Sometimes we had no idea what they were going through at home, but at least they had someone who cared about them and shared God's love with them. It's great to see some of our "kids" now going to college or university, and studying teaching, child-care, psychology, medicine and more! Others are working hard at their jobs, and some are raising their own children. We have second-generation kids at KIDS Church now!
The main challenges are always: space, funds, and people. Finding decent places to meet, having enough funds to keep going, and finding good, committed volunteers - these things are never easy! But we're thankful for what we have and that God has kept this ministry going, through ups and downs, for all these years.
What I enjoy most is getting to know the kids and watching them grow and change. Our ministry is based on relationships. The children often experience a lot of change and instability in their lives, so it's important to be consistent and to let them know that we are there for them in the long term. The greatest reward is seeing children come to know and follow Jesus. It's wonderful when they get older and want to start volunteering, and give back by reaching out to other kids. People have asked me why I keep doing this after all this time. Sometimes I get discouraged, and wonder if we're doing any good, but it's never really occurred to me to stop. I love it. I love the kids. I'll probably still be doing this when I'm an old lady!
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