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How one pastor's God-sized dream helped kids be ready for school

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams," said Eleanor Roosevelt.

Thanks to the Minnesota Annual Conference's Soul Leaders program and the Center for Courage & Renewal, Rev. Carol Zaagsma found the courage and clarity to claim her "God-sized dream" of giving kids a safe place to learn and play during the summer.

Zaagsma was in her sixth year as a pastor and was feeling weary. She had just taken a congregation through the arduous, heartbreaking process of closing a church that was no longer vibrant. As she accepted her next church assignment, Zaagsma really wanted to create something life-giving, something that met the true needs of the people in her community of Bloomington.

During that same time, Zaagsma attended the Soul Leaders retreat series, offered to clergy throughout the conference. It's a series created by Courage & Renewal facilitators Greg Eaton and Barb Hummel to sustain pastors so they can become passionate, engaged, and able to lead with a bold courageous spirit.

Through the personal reflection supported by her peers, Zaagsma was able to reconnect to her passion for ministry open her heart to hear what God was calling her to do next.

Zaagsma had heard that when kids went on summer vacation, many were forgetting what they'd learned. It was so bad, teachers were spending the first three months of the school year helping kids catch up from that "summer slide."

To make things worse, many children come from families facing poverty, discrimination and high job turnover. Portland Avenue United Methodist Church, where Carol has her ministry, is near the Mall of America. Families there tend to have jobs in the hospitality industry, with high turnover. As parents lose jobs, families move and kids don't stay at the same school for long. Without continuity in their education, it was even more likely that kids' learning would be stunted.

So Zaagsma conceived an idea to create a preschool program for preschoolers—not daycare, but a way to give kids the range of skills they need for kindergarten.

"That's not quite how my dream turned out," said Zaagsma.

One day, a substitute teacher from Bloomington public schools came to Zaagsma, seeking a place to offer a summer program for elementary-age kids. Could Portland Avenue church be that place, she asked?

Zaagsma recalled the words she'd adopted as her mantra during Soul Leaders: Give voice to what's possible.

"Let's make it happen!" she replied with determination.

Zaagsma partnered with two substitute teachers to open a summer school camp at her church where kids would have space to keep learning and growing.

"We called it The Port's Training Camp for School," she said. "It was a jump start for kids entering first through sixth grade. For three weeks every morning, we focused on reading, math skills, almost like a one-room school house, divided between lower and upper elementary. The kids got free lunch, too, provided by the school district."

Testing showed that kids who participated improved in their reading skills as much as five months of school work.

"It's meeting a great need in our community," Zaagsma affirmed.

"I am grateful to Soul Leaders and the Courage & Renewal process that helped open up this God-size dream in me," said Zaagsma, "and the wisdom to go with it as it took a slightly different shape!"

Adapted, Minnesota Annual Conference and The Center for Courage & Renewal. 

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