Introducing the South Woods Volunteers

Today we’re giving a warm welcome to our newest member, a partnership between Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and the South Woods Elementary School in a rural outlier of their community, Elkton. Christ Church’s Associate for Staff and Ministry Development, Steve Harrison has shared with us a detailed snapshot of how even the wealthiest areas of our country has schools that are neglected and forgotten and what an impact churches in those areas can have. We’re grateful to have this wonderful partnership as part of AOC, we’d love for you to welcome them warmly in the comments section!


AOC: What motivated your congregation to launch your partnership?

SH: The St. Johns County school district created a Faith Based Advisory Group to consult with the Superintendent for creating more involvement from churches in the schools and to be available to assist the administration with issues regarding faith and religion in our public schools. As I am a member of this Advisory Group, the Superintendent knew of our church’s work with farmworkers and other disadvantaged groups in the rural part of our county. He felt we would be a great match for partnering with this rural elementary school as we had already established relationships in the area.

AOC: What needs are you meeting in your partner school?

SH: This elementary school has over 625 students, 84% of which live below poverty, with many travelling over one hour each way on the school bus to attend. Because of the demographics of this area many kids do not have a traditional home and in fact are being raised by a neighbor, grandparent, or extended family member. The work necessary in the home to make for an excellent education at school, is not taking place.

  • There is no active parent organization to assist the school so we try to meet this need with volunteers at social events and school activities.
  • 40 homeroom classes do not have homeroom parent – we are developing a program for volunteers to fill this role.
  • We provide mentors to the students through the school Counselor’s office
  • We provide Thanksgiving dinners for 50 families who have been identified as unable to provide food for their family over the holiday.
  • We assist the teachers in the classrooms where possible, especially during state testing periods.
  • We volunteer to assist with the annual Book Fair program.

  • AOC: What is your partnership’s biggest on-going challenge?

    SH: Our county is ranked as the 2nd wealthiest county, per capita, in Florida and our school system is a model for success and excellence in the country. It is difficult to get local residents to understand that this demographic exists in our county and a school in our system is dealing with families that live in these circumstances.

    South Woods Elementary is located in the far southwestern reaches of this large county and because of the rural nature of the area it takes a long time to travel to the school. It is often too inconvenient for folks to help out.

    AOC:What positive impact have you seen in both your congregation and your partner school so far?

    SH: The school enthusiastically welcomes our participation. Our presence, doing the physical work at events and during programs, allows staff to focus on the more important work of engaging the students in learning and the families in continuing the learning at home.

    This program has been really well received by the church for a number of reasons. The school is not asking for money – they need active volunteer help from our people and that was very attractive to a lot of people. It also introduced a volunteer opportunity that focused on helping kids and actually completing work that was personally fulfilling and provided an obvious positive impact on others. Finally, everyone enjoys spending time around the kids because even in their circumstances which are so different from ours, they are so polite, friendly and eager for our attention and help! As am I sure you have heard many times, we always get so much more from the kids than we are giving to them.

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