Jerry and Regina were determined to see their two young daughters turn the page when it came to mastering their ABCs, but it was clear they were struggling. Despite Alyssa and Angel's best efforts, their reading skills faltered, and Mom and Dad feared what it might mean for their future.
The Hispanic couple knew that illiteracy would stifle their girls' success, denying them opportunities to fulfill their dreams full-throttle. The COVID-19 school shutdowns only intensified their fears.
So, when Jerry and Regina heard about a local church's weekly Feed and Read summer outreach they were eager to learn more despite their reservations about the faith-based element. Mark and Gloria Vera, Cru® Inner City's team directors in San Antonio, were also intrigued about the program. The couple, longtime Cru staff members, decided to partner with Communion Chapel's Feed and Read as a way to launch a new Inner City presence in the south Texas city.
At the church's orientation meeting about the program, Roderick Barnes, a bi-vocational pastor outlined the details: Volunteers would work with the kids at lunchtime, Monday through Friday.
"They would have a reading program for 30 minutes," Inner City's Mark said.
Bible stories, Pastor Barnes told the parents, would be used to improve the students' skills.
"Do you read anything other than the Bible?" Jerry asked the pastor. "Because we're not into this Jesus religious thing."
"No, we're a church and that's the book that we're reading," the pastor responded kindly but firmly.
Mark was impressed that, despite their concerns about the spiritual aspects, the parents decided to overlook the use of the Bible to get the kids the academic skills they needed.
"He did a good job communicating that the goal was not to indoctrinate them, it was just to improve or help them grow in their reading skills and word recognition," Mark said. "They had flashcards and those kinds of things. They (Jerry and Regina) were skeptical, but they wanted their daughter to read better."
Although there was no cost for the six-week program, there was a significant commitment for parents.
"It's not a drop-off program," Gloria said. "They have to have a parent or a guardian or grandmother. Somebody has to be there, present with the kids throughout the summer. The mom came with them every day that summer. Over the summer she was slowly building relationships with everybody and she was seeing that the kids were enjoying it, having a great time and developing in their reading."
In addition to the academic focus, the program included time for fun activities and a meal, a vital benefit for students who depended on the subsidized lunch program during the school year. With the summer recess, many children become food insecure.
"It's a challenge for some of the families," Gloria said.
To accelerate the relationships, the church began hosting a second service on Sunday specifically with the Feed and Read families.
"They invited parents to see what their kids were experiencing during the week," Mark said. "He was putting the Scriptures up on the screen and having the kids come up front during the service reading what they were reading over the week. Over the summer you could see the improvement of the kids every week. You could see their reading skills improve."
To further measure their progress in real-time, Pastor Barnes, who owns a tech business, used his expertise to create online comprehension assessments to track their reading skills, providing parents with a tangible report on how well their child was developing.
The reading program ended with the summer, but Jerry, Regina and the girls kept showing up at Communion Chapel. It turned out they signed on for the academic help but received much, much more. Using the Bible led to heart transformations for the entire family.
"There were Bible studies on Wednesday nights," Gloria said. "They kept coming to that. It wasn't like they were done after the summer. They kept coming."
As fall began, they joined a small group.
"Eventually we learned that they were together for 15 years but were never married," Gloria said. "We did a wedding for them during the second service. And all of their extended family came and were there to witness them getting married. A lot of their family was like, ‘We never thought this would happen.'"
This past summer, Regina was involved with Feed and Read — this time, reading to other children. She also dipped her toes in further by volunteering with Inner City's annual PowerPack® distribution, which provides backpacks and school supplies to families in need.
"They were a part of doing the backpack outreach and then some of the other outreaches that we were doing within the community," Gloria said.
Last December, the family participated in a Christmas skit with Jerry and Regina playing Mary and Joseph, while the girls portrayed a shepherd and a sheep.
Jerry and Regina's story underscores the depths of a parent's loving commitment as they doggedly pursued educational opportunities for their daughters. Little did they know the real reward was coming face to face with the God of the universe.
"I was pretty excited," Gloria said.
Photo by Cottonbro Studio / Pexels
Lori Arnold serves as the senior writer for Cru's inner-city ministry.
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