Artful wonders

After-school program revitalizes small Alabama town, 8-member church

August 14, 2009

The program accommodates 25-30 children a week.

The program accommodates 25-30 children a week.

Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

What do you get when you cross a small church in a small town with a crumbling economy? The surprising answer is opportunity. As in opportunity for growth on both a personal and church level, opportunity for service, opportunity to fulfill a need, and not least of all, the opportunity to lift spirits. 

Geneva Presbyterian Church, in the small town of Geneva, Ala., had only eight members when Dee Koza took over as commissioned lay pastor in February 2008, but what the church lacked in size, it made up for in enthusiasm and eagerness to be involved in the community. 

Koza’s background was as a certified Christian Educator, but the members of Geneva Presbyterian were so pleased with her message when she filled in as preacher one Sunday morning, they asked her to consider being lay pastor and she agreed to take on this new challenge.

One of the first steps Koza and the members of Geneva Presbyterian — part of South Alabama Presbyery — needed to take was to find out how they could best serve the community.

“We approached the community leaders. We talked to the mayor and the chamber of commerce, the school superintendant, principals, police chief and we asked them, ‘Is there something we can do to serve the community?” Koza said. “The response was the same from all of them. Do something for our children.”

The local school principal had the perfect suggestion. Recent budget cuts had forced the schools to make the difficult decision to cut the art program from the curriculum.

“The school principal told me right away that the children needed an art program,” Koza said. “So we hired an artist and we put one together.”

The result was Artful Wonders, an after-school program that runs every Tuesday during the school year from 2:00-2:45 p.m. at the church. The church pays for the art coordinator, an assistant and all of the needed supplies. In addition to the coordinator and assistant, a group of about 10 volunteers helps out on a rotating basis.  

To make it even easier for children to take advantage of the program, a bus runs directly from the local elementary school to the church on Tuesday afternoons.

“I really thought that would be a challenge. I anticipated all sorts of paperwork and red tape to make that happen,” Koza said. “But I was surprised. I spoke to the school superintendant and just asked him what I needed to do. He asked me when I needed the bus and said that would be no problem. We’ll continue to have the bus again this year.”

There is no cost to the children or their families. The church only asks that those who can afford to do so provide the group snack once per year.

The program is open to children from kindergarten to sixth grade, but children must register in advance because the church space can only accommodate about 25-30 children. 

“Last year we identified 300 potential kids who could take advantage of this and advertised to them. Our spaces filled up within one week and we had a waiting list,” Koza said. “This year we filled up in a day and a half, and we still have a waiting list.”

Not only is the art program filling up, but so is Koza’s church. During the school year, she estimates there are 20-23 people attending worship on Sundays, growth that executive presbyter Samford Turner of South Alabama Presbytery notes is impressive for such a short time and such a small town.

“We have a lot of really small towns and really small churches here in Alabama,” Turner said. “This just goes to show what energy, imagination and love can do even with a small church.”

This will be the second year for Artful Wonders. Koza thinks the program is needed even more now than when it started.

“This is a little bright spot for people in tough times. Geneva was very hard hit by the bad economy,” Koza said. “The biggest factory in town has closed down and several hundred people are now out of work. Three quarters of the kids we get could not afford to be in any other kind of program.

“The medium was art but the greatest gift we and the children received was a real sense of love and acceptance,” she said.

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC, where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.

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