MANATEE -- Manatee Youth for Christ, which has served Manatee County children for 55 years, operates about a dozen Kid's Live Clubs in Manatee County elementary schools where kids play games, sing praise songs, learn Bible-based life lessons and bond with adult volunteers for an hour after school, one day a week.
But Youth for Christ had not been able get a foothold at Ballard Elementary School, a school in downtown Bradenton where more than 90 percent of the children are on free and reduced lunch, organization leaders said.
That changed, however, when Wendy Mungillo became the principal of Ballard this year.
Mungillo believes that faith groups like Youth for Christ, along with churches, can help build character, impart life skills and, in many cases, even provide the one trusting adult that all children need.
In August, Mungillo sat down with Pete Rodewald, children's pastor at First Baptist Church in Bradenton, which had "adopted" Ballard and had been doing Easter egg hunts for student and breakfasts for teachers, but not Kid's Live Club.
"We were going over a list of things we wanted to do and Wendy said, 'Have you heard of Kid's Live?'" Rodewald said. "We had tried Kid's Live before at Ballard but we didn't have the right buy-in. The former principals didn't have much experience with Kid's Live."
After speedy meetings with Mike Chaplinsky, executive director of Manatee Youth for Christ and Simone Urbanski, Director of Kid's Live Club, Rodewald was named the first Kid's Live Club leader at Ballard.
Through Rodewald's tireless recruiting efforts, Ballard's new Kid's Live Club started in October with
kids and now, after four months, has grown to 50. The program runs October through April.
Perhaps even more telling, the parents of about 25 of the 50 allow their children to take a church bus after Kid's Live Club is over at 3:50 p.m. every Wednesday to First Baptist Church, where they are served dinner, do homework and play with children in the church's Royal Ambassador and Girls in Action programs.
They are then whisked back to Ballard where they meet their parents around 7 p.m.
One of those children who stays until 7 p.m. is Elizabeth Metz. Her mother, Tami Jo Metz, this week said it was her daughter's decision and the results have been remarkable.
"It's helped my daughter open up and be closer to God," said Tami Jo Metz.
Tami Jo Metz said when she picks Elizabeth up at 7 p.m., rather than exhausted and mopey, she finds a child "in a positive mood, her spirit fulfulled."
"Her grades are improving," Metz said of her daughter. "There is more positive in her life. This is something Elizabeth wanted to do. She found her way to God all on her own. I think it's very healthy."
Last Wednesday at Ballard, there was plenty of singing, shouting, hugging and tender moments between Rodewald, his volunteers, Teresa Mosher and Darlene King, and the children.
"I'm a big kid, and that is what I love about my job," said Rodewald, who taught in the Manatee County School District for five years at Wakeland Elementary and two years at Mills Elementary, finishing up in 2008 when he decided he had a calling to church work. "For an hour a day, I am one of them, only I have a little more experience."
Rodewald considers this work the most important of his life.
"We live in a very busy society and a lot of times kids need someone to listen," Rodewald said. "I think that is the great spot where a church can fill the void. We become the eyes and ears to help kids in everyday living."
For Mosher and King, it has been amazing to see the children respond.
"At first, the kids didn't say much," said Mosher, a member of First Baptist Church who responded to a plea in August for volunteers. "Now, after four months, I have bonded with a handful of the kids. They are beginning to talk to me. One little girl said she suffers from migraines. One little girl said she spent one night without a bed because someone else had to use it. It's only an hour, but we are connecting and they are opening up."
Each Wednesday, the club explores a different issue. Last Wednesday it was friendship and loyalty. Another topic earlier this month was bullying.
"We ask, 'Has anyone been bullied before?'" Mosher said. "When we ask a question, all hands go up. This is an age when they all want to talk and we can make an impact on their lives."
King, another First Baptist Church member, is a new "empty-nester" with three grown boys. "I also am finding the kids are starting to reach out to us," King said. "One of the boys stands near me. They are looking at us as role models, as someone who cares. He didn't say anything but I could feel it. He was seeking affection."
King also has praise for Rodewald, who is married to Jodie and has Cameron, 6, and MacKenzie, 3.
"Pete is an excellent leader," King said. "He loves kids. He has a passion for the things of God. I think we all love that we are able to minister to these children. We have a privilege. We can spend time and encourage them. We can love on them. We can be the face of Jesus to them."
Manatee elementary schools with Kid's Live include Ballard, Anna Maria, Mills, Witt, Stewart, Rowlett, North Imagine, Bashaw, Braden River, Wakeland and Williams, For information on starting a Kid's Live at another school, call Manatee Youth for Christ at 941-747-4608 or email Mike Chaplinsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.