For nearly 30 years, Bethlehem Baptist Church's Youth Summer Feeding and Enrichment Program has provided Newton County children with valuable social and educational skills.
This year, the four-week program has seen an upswing in participants as it continues its tradition in helping students enrich themselves during the dog days of summer, with daily attendance ranging from 95 to 124 children.
Registrar Deborah Belcher-Jenkins expects the attendance numbers to rise up to 200 before the program is over.
"We see them come in all ages and learning capacities, and we can work with that because we do have teachers in each area," she said.
The program's success can be attributed to its long roster of dedicated volunteers and organizers, many of whom have been with the program since its beginning. Teachers like Pamela Anderson, Tarsha Thomas and Doris Benton bring diverse backgrounds and broad experience to the program, working with different age groups and children with special needs.
"The (program) is like a good-tasting pie; it takes all the ingredients to make it good," said Communications Director Elizabeth Partridge-Godfrey. "All of the leaders work together for the youth to make them better individuals and productive citizens."
Director Genae Martin, with her background as a Newton County teacher, introduced a CRCT-based curriculum last year. She also gave teachers a free hand to engage the students in an assortment of activities like word games, arts and crafts and social interaction to help strengthen their abilities in math, reading and language arts. They are also allowed to incorporate Bible studies as well, since some of these children may not have the proper church exposure.
"We have a lot more involvement from our teachers," said Martin. "During the summer, these kids want to have some fun ... so the teachers can tweak and modify the curriculum as they see fit."
Starting at 10 a.m. every day, students first engage in a prayer service, singing hymns, and are presented with the rules and conduct. They are divided by the appropriate age groups and taken to different areas to begin their activities of the day. Hot lunches are served at noon, and they are given a final activity before going home at 1p.m.
"A lot of these children may not get a hot meal while their parents are away at work," said Drucilla Suratt. "When they come here, they know they are getting a hot meal."
According to Pastor Hezekiah Benton, Jr., the church started the program as a suggestion from one of its members who wanted students to have something to do during the summer, to provide instructional courses and "to keep them out of trouble." The program was approved by the congregation and soon found support from corporate entities such as Snapping Shoals EMC.
The program is geared primarily to ages 4 to 12, but many of the older students who have graduated from the program return year after year to volunteer as helpers, a testimony to the impact of the program.
"We are losing a lot of our youth to the streets," said Wilbert Hill, who works with the older children. "A lot of them join gangs to be somebody. We let them know, "you are somebody." We let these children speak to us."
The summer feeding and enrichment program runs through July 15. Parents unable to bring their children to the program can schedule a pick-up with the church. Pick-ups begin at 8:30 a.m. For more information and to register, call (770) 786-8229.