Partnership Building 101: Charting the Path & Staying the Course

This is the first in a new monthly series of posts from AOC Director Lallie Lloyd.

St. Mary’s Barnstable, the congregation on Cape Cod where I’ve worshiped for three years, started its journey into partnership with Hyannis West Elementary almost a year ago, and this month, January 2017, we finally took our first steps into the school. Over the next few months I’ll be chronicling this work and sharing stories from my time in Ms. Janney’s first grade classroom, where many students are English language learners. I coach four students for fifteen minutes each during their Tuesday morning literacy block. But first I wanted to share with you the story of how we got started.

Our journey at St. Mary’s was not a straight path. In the fall of 2015 I connected with Eleanor and Lisa, fellow parishioners, because they volunteered for the planning team of All Our Children’s February 2016 New England conference. As the three of us worked together on that conference, we got excited about the possibility of St. Mary’s launching its own partnership, and we agreed to explore that over that spring.

St. Mary’s has a particular calling – a charism you might say – for ministries with children.

One example of that gift is Amazing Grace, a free week-long overnight summer camp for children of incarcerated parents. Another example is our monthly Joy Mass inviting children of all ages to gather once a month to playfully – yet respectfully – celebrate the Eucharist, with preaching puppets, costumed children re-enacting Gospel stories, and a good dose of stand-up/sit-down. Libby Gibson, St. Mary’s rector, is mom to four children and has the grace to see all children as God’s beloved: the church, right here and now. Not the future of the church, but the present church. Libby was delighted with our idea and urged us forward.

St. Mary’s was a happy place to explore partnering with a school.

But – as far as I could tell – working through teams that take their time to learn together, share leadership, make decisions collaboratively, and form bonds of mutuality and accountability had not been part of St. Mary’s culture.

So when we invited people to come to our exploratory meetings almost a year ago, some came – once – and didn’t return. Several said, “Let me know when you decide what you’re doing, because I want to help. I don’t do meetings.” With few hands and many interruptions, we made slow progress, but during the summer and fall we researched local schools, found knowledgeable people in our midst, heard about existing programs, and learned that Hyannis West Elementary (known locally as Hy West) stood out. Hy West has the highest proportion of children living in poverty and the most English language learners of any school in our town. We decided to focus our attention there.

It took weeks to get a meeting with the principal and counselor, but they were receptive and open when we did. One day, Tricia, a regular at our monthly team meetings at St. Mary’s, ran into her friend Gail, a Hy West teacher, at yoga. Tricia told Gail what we were interested in doing, and Gail immediately connected us to Shelly the literacy coach. Finally we had the connections to move forward.

Now it’s slow going on our side of the partnership. For good reason, the school district requires volunteers to get a criminal background check; and for equally good reasons St. Mary’s requires volunteers to complete “Safe Church,” an online child abuse prevention training. We’ve been delayed getting David, a St. Mary’s team member, set up as the administrator. Everything is taking longer than we’d hoped.

For now, Tricia and I are the only St. Mary’s volunteers at HyWest every week (we’d both completed the requirements previously). David is ready to start as soon as he can do Safe Church. Our first adult forum is in two weeks, and we’re hoping others will join us in time for Literacy Week at Hy West in March.

Over these months of waiting and preparing to get started, the team has kept our eyes on our purpose: to establish a long term relationship with the school, so we can support the children. We’ve prayed and learned together, and shared stories of our own early educations and what calls us to this work. Staying connected to our hearts’ longing, and our purpose has helped us be patient as we wait to begin.

I’ve spent three Tuesday mornings with Ms Janney, and I can’t wait to introduce you to the children – next time.

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