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The Positive Place
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Bethlehem Baptist Church is currently holding its annual Summer Feeding Youth and Enrichment Ministry program. From June 21 to July 16, the program will be providing children ages 4 to 12 a wealth of fun activities while instilling educational and social skills.

When it began 29 years ago, the summer feeding program primarily operated to feed the children of the local community. Over the years, the program evolved by incorporating curriculum-based activities and Bible studies. The program is staffed with volunteers who are passionate about providing a nurturing and educational environment for children.

Genae Martin, director of the summer feeding program, believes the program is vital for children who otherwise may be unoccupied in the summer.

"A lot of kids don’t have positive places to be, so they tend to regress during the summer. They feel because they’re out of school, they don’t have to do anything," Martin said. "So we not only try to make this a positive place to be, we try to help them be prepared for the upcoming school year."

Martin, who became director this year, used her background as a Newton County teacher and brought a CRCT-based curriculum to the program to help strengthen students’ abilities in math, reading and language arts.

Volunteer teachers are given a free hand to engage the students in an assortment of activities like word games, arts and crafts and social interaction.

"We just try to make this as school-based as possible," Martin said. "One of the new things we’re doing this year is a dress code. We want the kids to dress the part and respect themselves. We’re not making them wear uniforms or Sunday church clothes, just appropriate clothing. This means no spaghetti straps, midriff-bearing shirts, hats, logos, combs or offensive language."

Attendance each day fluctuates between 50 to 100 children. Rules of conduct are presented at the beginning of each day. Students are then divided by the appropriate age groups and taken to different areas of the church house to begin their activities of the day. Some of the children’s older siblings attend the program to volunteer as aids or as co-teachers to help guide the younger groups in their activities.

Older students, between 10 and 12-years-old, are given outlets to discuss their approaching adolescence issues. Students are separated by gender in these older groups to bring ease to some of the personal questions that may be asked.

"We also play the role of guidance counselors for these children, especially the older ones," Martin said. "The boys would talk to the men and discuss whatever subjects they choose and the girls can discuss with the women about feminine issues and hygiene and anything else. They really get a lot out of it."

Along with teaching Bible study, the feeding program also tries to instill some basic values in its teachings to students unfamiliar with church settings.

"Since we are in church, we try to maintain a church aspect of it," Martin said. "You have a lot of kids who didn’t grow up in the church, so we try to bring them in and show them basic church manners, like not running in the church or crossing the pulpit. We’ll sing religious songs, pray, read the bible, teach them about the Bible."

Several guest speakers have visited the program in past years to bring some insight to the children regarding many subjects, such as liturgical dancing and black history. Sheriff Ezell Brown recently made an appearance to discuss the roles of his job and the drug task force. A K-9 officer also was brought in to interact with the children.

At lunch, students are served their favorite hot meals like hamburgers, chicken strips, string beans and hot dogs. Nutritious fruits and salads are also on the menu, with a few sweet surprises like ice cream and cookies.

"I came to the conclusion that some of these kids, while they’re out of school and their parents are at work, they don’t get a hot meal during the day," said Druscilla Surratt, who leads the kitchen staff. "So when they come here, they know they’re going to get a hot meal."

Upon completion of the program, a ceremony will be held on Sunday, July 18, during both services. Students will be awarded a certificate for their participation and volunteer staff members will also be recognized for their efforts.

"What we want to do is try to uplift the community, help the children know God, get a good education and learn great values," said Martin.

The program is free of charge; it acquires its funds through grant programs like Snapping Shoals and community contributions. Students attend the program 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, with transportation provided by the church. Bethlehem Baptist Church is located on 2177 Usher Street. For more information, contact the church at (770) 786-8229.