by Matt Cardona
Originally published in the Aug 2011 St Mark Messenger
Where does one begin to explain a program that is still being adapted and growing? The Meadow began during an afternoon’s conversation as a way to bridge the real grassy divide between Walnut Creek Elementary and St. Mark. The very next week, the program had a name and a broad outline. At its core, The Meadow is a grant funded Children’s Enrichment Program and is serving as the pilot program for the United Methodist Church for future programs within the Austin District. Some have asked, “Where did that grant money come from?” Others have said, “So you are running a day care facility.” Others have still commented, “Great idea, don’t forget to teach those kids some manners.” These are all valid questions and comments and yet at the conclusion of every answer and retort I could feasibly muster, none would tell the importance or value that this program has had on a handful of staff and children.
Our day begins with me arriving at the church and dragging my fiancee Shawna along much earlier than we had imagined on summer mornings. The moment I step through the door, I find that there is much more to do than I ever anticipated. I may beg Pastor Cindy to make last minute phone calls to Spanish speaking parents or order Shawna and our faithful youth helper Aaron on just “one more” task. Vicky, our church secretary and Judy, our volunteer “financial everything” are always willing to help me in the final preparations. Yet I sometimes think I detect the fear on their faces when I enter the building.
The day progresses as the staff arrives before the noon start time. I send Shawna & Michael out in our church van to start the “corralling of children.” I recently discovered that Michael would rather not deal with children … and yet he comes back. First on Wednesday and then on Friday and before he can escape, we are at Wednesday again. I have yet to ask him, “Why bother, Michael?” As he hands me the daily roll as a distraction to the children sneaking behind me … I find my answer. A smile slowly spreads across his face as I am dragged into the building by the mob and he is free to leave as he chooses. I have concluded that either Michael comes back to see me suffer at the merciless hands of elementary children or for just a moment, he is someone to those children and they are someone to him. The beautiful truth is that together we have the ability to communicate values from times past to the young and they remind us of the importance of those influences.
The rest of the day becomes a colorful array of memories and moments. Some moments we grasp only to realize it will not last; others … we free them as they happen. Through the ringing of chimes we transition into our groups transferring back and forth between written curriculum to free time. We have four core subjects we try to include daily: Science, Art, The Craft and Reading & Writing. In between those sessions children are given free rein at an array of activities ranging from ping pong to “Don’t spill the beans”.
Every once in a while we throw in a social building exercise. During one successful example, children were asked to design a prototype shoe for Nike with only two pieces of construction paper, two pieces of cloth, six pipe cleaners, some string and some stickers. The shoe would not only be worthy of consideration of Nike but would also be functional in its prototype form. I planned for ten minutes thinking the children would tire and become bored. But one hour later we had our “Showcase of Shoes” even entering a second round of voting for the top two shoes.
We even have our own Sign Language Professional, Myra, who comes in and teaches the kids some sign language. Now all day long the kids sign “ice cream” and “pizza” to me … thank you Myra.
Numerous hours went into the structure and planning of this program. Our curriculum writer is Richard who has never once left our staff without examples of how to approach his lessons. Rachel and Michelle at the district office communicate with me regularly on where we are and what we need. Without them, the program simply would not be. The staff, Evanna, Lacy, Brandon, and Shawna have never complained about the work, the extra meetings or the chaotic thinking of the program director. Without them, The Meadow might not have seen success. There are numerous other volunteers that I will fail to mention but I do not forget them as they continue week after week to volunteer their efforts and energies to make it work for the children.
Yet, even with all the logistics laid out in front of us, I still find the question, “What is The Meadow?” hard to describe. None of this explains the emotion we saw in Michael V’s eyes when the children sang Happy Birthday to him. The gratitude he displayed walking up to me with his eyes tearing up and the only words he could muster were, “I’m so happy … I’m so happy.” Or the moment I saw a child put their trust into Ms. Lacy as they reached to hug her after a story was read to them.
Or the time Adan apologized to each staff member before he left that day for the disrespect he had shown. As if that wasn’t enough, the next program day, he proceeded to lead his group to a victory in the “Showcase of Shoes.” Since then he avidly reminds all his peers not to talk when a teacher is giving instruction. Tobias and Lucus, after hearing a round of applause from their peers for their birthdays which were not on a program day, took it upon themselves to clean up after their peers. They wiped down all the tables and counters and even set the “big room” furniture back in it’s original position. Or the time I asked the children what they would like to do at The Meadow and their response was … “Let’s have a lock in!”
Lives are being touched, God’s children are at play and leaders are emerging. I have found that The Meadow is much more than a summer program. It is … a blessing. I look ahead and I see that my life has been altered. I’ll always remember the Marin girls’ smiles as they leave The Meadow. I’ll remember Adan, Allan, Santiago, Michael and their care over their younger siblings. Most importantly, I’ll remember the children.