Yardley UMC

Giving youth a summer of learning, laughter, love

by John W. Coleman

“It takes a village to raise a child.”  (From an African proverb)

While most schools sit empty and silent during summer vacations, churches across the Eastern PA Conference have weeks when they may suddenly bustle with activity and enrichment programs for energetic children and youth.

Cokesbury UMC

As families look for safe places where children can find education and enjoyment, many churches eagerly step in to play that important role, providing their “villages” with weeks of valuable child-raising assistance.

The churches, of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, provide their young charges with learning, laughter and, most of all, Christian love. Their program offerings typically range from recreation, music and art, to academic instruction and exploratory field trips, to Christian education and mission experiences.

Cokesbury UMC

Cokesbury UMC, in the South District, is keeping hope alive for families in Marcus Hook, a tiny, struggling Delaware River town whose many looming, once-busy oil refinery facilities are relatively dormant now. When market forces finally closed down major refineries in 2010, too many families lost jobs, incomes, homes, local commerce and once-confident aspirations.

Cokesbury provides them with emergency food, clothing and other needs, but also reading assistance and free meals to young children for four weeks each summer through its Lunch and Learn program. Seven years ago they began working to improve students’ falling reading levels. They also offer what for many may be the day’s only nutritious meal.

Cokesbury UMC

Church members, public school staff and teachers, local businesses and volunteers all pitch in, as do other area churches. Cokesbury’s efforts are paying off educationally, as children rise to the reading challenge, many excited to be learning. But the ministry survives from year to year only through arduous fundraising and modest support.

In the East District, Yardley UMC’s recent Middle School Mission Trip, July 9-13, was really three days of local mission encounters at 10 area locations for an age group that rarely gets to experience challenging mission opportunities. The popular, annual program keeps growing—from 12 middle-schoolers in 2014 to 55 this year, including youth from New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, plus many high-school-age leaders who handle much of the planning and supervision.

Yardley UMC

Each day the pre- and early teens (ages 10-14) worked in teams at:

  • several residential facilities serving low-functioning older adults and runaway, homeless, abused and neglected youth;
  • several food pantries serving the poor;
  • a farm where they helped glean produce to feed the hungry;
  • a rescue horse farm where they cleaned stables and did other chores;
  • a day camp hosted by Yardley Church for children from low-income families; and
  • St. James UMC in Philadelphia, where they helped turn an old Sunday school room into a food pantry.

Yardley UMC

The diverse gathering of youth slept, ate and lived at the church, while enjoying fellowship, leadership development, games, worship and dialogue, all of which helped them explore their discerning theme: “My Calling.” Now Yardley is planning a winter-weekend mini-mission trip to St. James UMC next year, Feb. 16-18.

Offering VBS and other programs

Numerous churches over the summer offered weeklong Vacation Bible School adventures, especially (and traditionally) for neighborhood children who do not ordinarily attend church. They chose from an assortment of published curricula with different themes and rotating activities that included games, videos, crafts, music, skits, snacks and, of course, Bible lessons.

As requested, some churches have sent us photos from their VBS programs to share in our conference media. We hope to receive and publish more on our Flickr page by the end of August.

St. Mark’s UMC, Mount Joy

St. Mark’s UMC in Mount Joy hosted 80 children for four days of “Power Lab VBS.” Their young “scientists” did experiments and participated in a Science Fair, while learning about Jesus’ miraculous power. Coventryville UMC, in Pottstown, used the Maker Fun Factory VBS program, engaging nearly 140 young “inventors,” along with their leaders and helpers, in discovering both their creativeness and “createdness” as beloved children of God.

Wharton-Wesley UMC

Wharton-Wesley UMC in Philadelphia and First UMC in Lancaster both used the popular Hero Central (“Discover Your Strength in God!”) VBS program. Children at First UMC wore their superhero capes on the final day, took photos with fearless “Captain Shield and Flame” and honored local heroes who have provided summer academic enrichment programs for kids.

VBS efforts did not seem to work well for the North District’s Fritz UMC in Bethlehem, which drew only minimal attendance in recent years, reported the Rev. Barbara Lee, pastor. “We’re a small, traditional congregation in a changing community, surrounded by other churches that offer VBS programs,” she said, admitting also a need to build more trust with wary neighbors through creative outreach efforts.

Fritz UMC

So, they tried something new. They experimented with a five-night Arts Academy, July 24-28, for children, ages 5 to 12, that included dinner, outdoor games, singing and most of all, art.

Several dozen children came each evening to the 127-year-old, towering church edifice— itself an elegant work of art inside and out. Longtime artist and church member Jane Gaughran taught them sculpture, drawing and painting, offering brief talks with visual examples. Then they embarked on their own, often surprising journeys into creative self-expression, guided by church members and local high school and college volunteers.

Fritz UMC

“The main purpose of the Arts Academy is to get to know people in the community that otherwise would never come to our church,” said Gaughran, a primary goal echoed by Lee. “Secondarily, we want to bring some enrichment to children and families who might be unaware of the arts or lack resources to send their children for art lessons. We want to perform a service to the community that will benefit them and acquaint them with us.”

Columbia UMC, in the West District, had similar goals in sponsoring its 17th annual summer day camp in early August, held for five days at a nearby pavilion. Like other churches offering this more extensive, full-day experience, Columbia delighted children with games, science experiments, Bible stories, crafts, music, a field trip and special guests. 

“It’s an essential part of how the congregation accomplishes its vision of taking Christ to the community,” said the Rev. Tom Grubbs, pastor. The goal is “for children to leave knowing that God loves them and wants to have a relationship with them.”

NOTE: Visit our Flickr page to see more Vacation Bible School photos submitted by various churches. And please send us your best VBS photos before the end of August so we can share them with our readers!