Students to develop life, job skills through Kansas youth program

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 18, 2014

[Episcopal Diocese of Kansas] High school students in inner-city Kansas City, Kansas, soon will get the chance to develop life and job skills, thanks to a new program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that has received funding from the Episcopal Church.

A $35,000 Jubilee Ministry grant will fund the start-up this fall of “Youth in Transitions,” which the church’s priest, the Rev. Dixie Junk, described as a youth development program.

The need that sparked the church’s grant application was simple – the local school district sends students home at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays to provide time for staff training. Through a series of meetings with community groups, church members heard that there was a real need to find something meaningful for high school students to do during that time.

The new program will provide selected students help in several areas:

  • Life skills – personal finance, nutrition and healthy eating, and communications;
  • Job-readiness skills – how to complete a job application, interviewing and networking;
  • Community service training to become a volunteer in one of the church’s existing food ministry programs – food pantry, Saturday morning hot breakfast and community garden; and
  • Quiet time for reflection, something school officials identified as a missing element in many homes.

About half of the one-year grant is earmarked for hiring a part-time program coordinator, which Junk said is the key to the program’s success. This person will oversee the program’s selection of student participants and recruit the volunteers who will teach the skills classes.

The rest of the grant funds will provide curriculum materials and technology equipment for instructors and students, as well as classroom tables and chairs.

Junk said the church, which is located in the city’s urban core, will rely on volunteer labor and in-kind donations to convert some existing rooms, like an under-used library and chapel, into spaces where students can learn and study.

Grant recognizes an innovative program
The Rev. Mark Stevenson, who became the Episcopal Church’s first domestic poverty missioner last September, oversees the Jubilee grants. He made a trip to St. Paul’s in late January to get a first-hand look at plans for the start-up of the new program.

He said that St. Paul’s was selected from 59 applications because this program can be used by other churches around the country. “What we liked about this program was the ability for it to be replicated in different contexts,” Stevenson said.

The grant committee was searching for a model ministry that showed innovation and creativity, had an educational component, and could be duplicated elsewhere.

Junk said she has received support for the new program from Kansas City Mayor Mark Holland and Commissioner Ann Murguia. In a letter that accompanied the grant application, Holland praised the church’s outreach efforts that support its neighborhood and reach thousands of people each year. He said the youth start-up will bring “our kids up to speed on important job readiness and life skills that can be harder to come by in urban environments.”

Murguia’s letter said St. Paul’s will fill a gap that currently isn’t being met by schools or the local community, to help “prepare young people for the realities of the work force and the responsibilities of citizenship.” She called St. Paul’s efforts “a great service and benefit to our city.”

Junk said area employers told her some of their young employees lack the work and life skills the church’s program will teach. They have promised to send them to the church’s new program to catch up.

She said government officials also have pledged their help in connecting businesses with the church to provide additional trainers and to enhance the course content.

Culinary program is long-term goal
Junk said that if St. Paul’s can find the money, they would like to provide an expansion of the successful Culinary Cornerstones chef training program operated by Episcopal Community Services, a social service agency of the Dioceses of Kansas and West Missouri.

That program is based at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, Mo., and teaches high-end cooking skills to students whose backgrounds (often drug addiction or jail time) make them hard to employ. The program helps place graduates in restaurant kitchens across the metro-Kansas City area.

To make that expansion a reality, St. Paul’s would need nearly $20,000 to buy restaurant-grade equipment for its kitchen, and another $125,000 to put in a parking lot to accommodate events that Culinary Cornerstones students cater as part of their training. On the church grounds there is room for only about a dozen cars now, so the church relies on street parking for Sunday services and weekday outreach efforts.

In the meantime, Junk hopes they can begin to offer training for other kinds of restaurant jobs, such as waiters and waitresses, which can provide meaningful jobs for high school students.

She admits expanding into the culinary program is ambitious, given that St. Paul’s has a small membership, operates with a barebones budget and receives financial help from the diocese. But if the Youth in Transitions program is a success, Junk hopes it can serve as leverage and incentive for community partners to want to make the culinary training possible. Episcopal Community Services has pledged to help make those connections.

Junk said this grant goes a long way to showing others that St. Paul’s is committed to helping create a better neighborhood. “The larger our position as a vital member of this community, the more likely there will be resources to help us,” she said. “There will be more people in our corner fighting to make sure we make it.”
Encouraging people to work with the poor

Stevenson said that one of his roles as the church’s domestic poverty missioner is to encourage more people to work directly with poor people, as St. Paul’s already does and will expand with its new program. “Our goal is that one in four people will work with the poor,” he said, “and one in four parts of the budget and every program.”

Cuts to the Episcopal Church budget in recent years mean there is less money at the denominational level to put into this work, but Stevenson said “that’s a good thing. It gets us out of our silos and celebrates the fact that all good ministry happens at the local level.”

Stevenson saw the transformational power of fighting poverty when he was canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. “When you sit with someone who had nothing and lost that, who had a job and lost that, then you see how God starts working in their lives,” he said. But it also transforms the lives of people who help. “When you start living this, you are changed.”

Stevenson said he wants to offer Episcopal Church members a new approach in the ministry to help people get out of poverty. Instead of starting with the needs of the community, he suggests looking at the passion of people who are ready to give. In that way, well-intentioned programs don’t wither when people have no interest in participating in them “It’s more about helping people determine what their treasure is, so they can begin to give that away,” he said.
“The reason I’m in this job is to define new ways to help you do the work God is calling you to,” he said.

— Melodie Woerman is the director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.