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Small Indian Reservation Church Offers Big Ministry

If a church's size is measured by how many bodies occupy the pews on any given Sunday, then Wilbur Memorial United Methodist Church in White Swan is small.

However, if the number of people a church serves is the yardstick, the White Swan church is large indeed. It is the weekly ministry that makes this church a community focal point, particularly with children and youth.

Located in a remote corner of the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state, the White Swan church operates as a kind of social services agency supported in part by federal grants, tribal money and a connection with the school district. Every school day, five buses unload children, kindergarten-age through fifth grade, at the church's doorstep to join in the congregation's after-school program.

Nearly 70 kids, many of whom have learning disabilities or behavioral problems, work with tutors for homework help, and participate in learning activities and organized recreation, and have snacks. Financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Yakama Nation and private donors makes it all possible.

Church member and teacher Glenda Hargrave has parlayed her passion for education into the ministry.

"I believe that education is the key to getting people where they want to go in life," she said. "We try to create an enthusiasm for learning here." She smiles. "Sometimes, the kids even ask me for homework. It's really awesome."

Before moving to White Swan, Hargrave ran her own private school for 22 years. In this, the fourth year of the program, Hargrave says the average attendance has more than doubled over last year, and she has a waiting list of 20 kids. The ministry works well, in part, because of the ongoing connection with teachers, who refer children to the program.

"Teachers tell us they notice a difference in the kids' school work," she said. And when a child "forgets" to do homework, it's not unusual for a teacher to call Hargrave and check on the student. "I make sure they do their homework the next night," she said, demonstrating her stern teacher face.

Teen-agers benefit from the program too. High school students are paid to work as tutors and supervisors of the children, learning valuable life skills from a job that doesn't take away too many hours from their own homework responsibilities.

Tutor Janice Piel says she works in the program because she likes teaching. As the children thunder off the bus, Janice is one of the first to greet them and lead them into the church, her quiet presence a calming contrast to the boisterous energy of the kids. "I really like kids," she says with a grin as she offers assistance to a fifth-grade boy hard at work on his science studies.

Wearing her high school letterman's jacket close about her, Leona Plumlee comments that she is glad for the opportunity to "learn greater responsibility" in this job. But she and the other tutors agree it's really the fun aspect of the job that makes it so appealing.

Sharon Piel, a more mature tutor, sees what the program brings to the White Swan community. "Many of these kids come from broken homes, and they need a place where they are safe and not getting into trouble," she said. "I've seen the kids here really take an interest in their work. They begin to appreciate learning. That is good for their future."

The church expanded the ministry last summer. Taking only a week off in between school and summer break, 50 students continued to develop their skills each day, all day long, with lesson plans in school work and enriching activities and crafts. The program was bolstered by the volunteer efforts of a nondenominational group called YouthWorks out of Minneapolis. YouthWorks sent ongoing groups of 50 to 70 high school youth per week to help with the program and to mentor the children. Photos of all the youth who visited are displayed in a corner of the meeting room.

The Rev. Jane Sautter, pastor at Wilbur Memorial United Methodist Church, finds great satisfaction in the ministry taking place each weekday.

"People from all over the country helped us this summer — people from Ohio, Georgia, Minnesota. It was truly amazing. And all of them expressed to us what a great program we have going here," she said. "It's been very satisfying."

Local United Methodist support has been vital too. Visiting volunteers went home and raised funds or collected donations of supplies to the school. The Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue, Wash., purchased and built a playground for the kids. And people from throughout the Pacific Northwest Conference volunteer or send regular contributions to the ministry.

Despite all that's working with the ministry, Sautter adds that the children make it all worthwhile. "This is a place where kids truly feel loved, and there is so much hope in that," she said.

It takes a lot of work to create a special place, Sautter admits, estimating that about 90 percent of her time is spent writing and administering grants, researching funding sources and developing community partnerships. But, she adds, this is where she wants to be.

"I feel called to this work here, and I feel a power and a peace knowing I'm where I'm supposed to be," she said. "When God's will and mine intersect … well, it's a beautiful thing."

And where vision and need intersect, it is just as beautiful.

Schug is former director of communications in the Pacific Northwest Conference. She is a free-lance writer living in the Seattle area.

This United Methodist News Service article was first released Nov. 14, 2001.

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