Coulwood churches help 150 middle schoolers get ready for school

by Tori Hamby

Members from all five churches spent a night packing 150 book bags to distribute to incoming Coulwood Middle School sixth-graders. (Courtesy of Donnie Mitchem)

As Coulwood Middle School’s newest sixth-graders filed into class on the first day of school, teachers had one less thing to worry about amidst all the first-day jitters.
Thanks to a partnership between five local Methodist churches, none of the school’s students arrived to class sans school supplies or book bags.
Coulwood-area churches Thrift United Methodist Church, Christ United Methodist Church, Homestead United Methodist Church, Moore’s Chapel United Methodist Church and Covenant United Methodist Church joined forces to collect 150 book bags, filled with notebooks, pencils and binders, which volunteers distributed at the school sixth-grade orientation program, Camp Catamount.
“Camp Catamount is the first experience that our sixth-grade students and parents have here at Coulwood,” said Coulwood Middle principal Rachel Goldberg. “Entering middle school is a very intimidating time in both parents’ and students’ lives, and they got to see that sense of community we have been trying to build the second they walked through our doors.”

Mel Burton, pastor of Thrift United Methodist Church, helps pack a book bag. (Courtesy of Donnie Mitchem)

In July, the federal government labeled Coulwood Middle a Title 1 school – a designation given to schools in which 75 percent or more of the student body receives free or reduced lunch. Federal officials give Title 1 schools additional funds to hire more teachers, hire teaching assistants and tutors; increase parental involvement, provide professional development; for staff; and purchase supplies.
Because of the high percentage of low-income students, Goldberg said, many students would have returned to school Aug. 25 without their needed supplies if the churches had not helped.
The project evolved from a discussion between Coulwood Middle behavioral health therapist Donnie Mitchem, who is also a Christ United deacon, and Homestead United pastor Alexis Coleman about the book “Change the World,” written by Ohio pastor Mike Slaughter. The two women wanted to find ways to minister outside the walls of their respective churches and thought Coulwood would be the best place to start.
“Churches have traditionally cared for the people in the church,” said Homestead United Methodist pastor Alexis Coleman. “‘Change the World’ is a part of a new paradigm that a lot of churches are practicing to get out in the community and be a visible presence in the communities where the churches are located.”
Organizers chose the school because of its proximity to all of the churches, its Title 1 designation and a belief that middle school students, in some of their most crucial years of emotional development, often get overlooked by many church and community ministries.
“I think a lot of churches just automatically gravitate toward elementary schools because they just love to work with little children because children are cute,” said Jim Humphries, pastor of Christ United Methodist. “Middle schoolers aren’t always considered ‘cute,’ but their needs are just as great as anybody else’s needs.”
In less than three weeks, the congregation collected money and donations for 150 supply-filled book bags. A Spirit Night at the Chick-fil-A at Callabridge Landing, in which the restaurant gave part of its proceeds to the project, raised additional money to purchase supplies.
Goldberg said she felt stunned and overjoyed when a van packed to the brim with goodies pulled into the school’s parking lot. Teachers will even get to keep many left over supplies in a closet to use throughout the year.
“When the vans first pulled up here at school,” Goldberg said, “it just blew my mind. They opened the back door and the whole thing was filled with the book bags.”
During the Aug. 19 sixth-grade orientation program, church volunteers helped distribute the book bags and served dinner to parents and students. Much to the students’ delight, volunteers allowed each boy and girl to look around and pick out the bag they liked most as if they were back-to-school shopping.
While the book bag and school supply drive proved to be a huge success, Mitchem, Humphries and Coleman said the partnership does not end after students dust off their textbooks and settle in for another year. On Oct. 1, the churches will come back together for “Impact Community Day,” a collaborative effort among western N.C. United Methodist Churches to serve local communities. The five congregations plan to spend the Saturday cleaning up Coulwood Middle’s campus, something Goldberg feels the school’s staff will really appreciate.
“In order to keep good teachers in Coulwood and loving Coulwood and feeling like (the school) is a family, they need to see those outside connections being made and know that other people from the community are going to support them.”
Mitchem added that two other undecided student- and teacher-centered projects are planned for later in the school year. Congregation members also have stepped up to volunteer with various after-school clubs and activities at the school.
“Middle school can be a scary, not-so-nice place sometimes,” Mitchem said. “We hope these efforts help students realize that the community does care.”

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