The Happy Church, nestled in Appalachian Kentucky, rests in the poorest region of the United States at the seat of the nation’s third-poorest county. It’s a growing Grace Brethren congregation with a powerful ministry to the local poor.
We want to help get their moral compass pointing in the right direction,” says Pastor Mike Tabor. “We want to grow them up, teach them to work, and improve their situation.”
His vision is one caught by Gladys Deloe, a former pastor’s wife from Winona Lake, Ind., who was moved by the stories of poverty the Tabors shared at national conference in 2005. Deloe felt called to somehow make a difference.
“The Holy Spirit led me,” she says now. “Basically I knew nothing about poverty.”
And yet “Gladys is the whole reason our kids’ program came about,” says Mike’s wife, Connie, who directs children’s ministries at The Happy Church. In 2005, Deloe turned a small personal inheritance into grace in ACTION usa (GiA), a faith-based non-profit she hoped would help break the poverty cycle around the Jackson, Ky., church.
A string of microenterprise eff orts ultimately failed, but the experience led Deloe to an understanding that generating longterm change is neither quick nor uncomplicated.
“It’s much easier to give away food than teach people how to provide for themselves,” she says. “It means spending time with some very disadvantaged people in some very difficult conditions. It takes time and a huge amount of effort to stick with those who come from generations of poverty and help them even see the need for change,” she adds. Most importantly, she came to the realization that “you don’t see a long-lasting remedy unless you start with the children.”
In this, Deloe and The Happy Church were well matched. Among the church’s five core values is the dictum, “we place
children as our top people group.”
With this new target audience in mind, the mission of the organization shifted, evolving into a faith-based life skills program for at-risk youngsters.
“Kids raised in poverty are at a huge disadvantage because their environment doesn’t give them the opportunity, either by instruction or example, to learn the life and job skills they need to become productive citizens,” Deloe explains.
GiA aims to bridge the gap. Finding the way to do so proved difficult, however.
“I asked Connie Tabor if she thought adding life skills lessons to her afterschool tutoring program would be a good thing,” remembers Deloe. “I looked in vain for some kind of curriculum, especially anything faith-based or prepared with poverty children in mind,” she notes. “After much research and more importantly, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we wrote and published the curriculum. Now we face the huge task of getting the books into the hands of the church. It is a tool that caring Christians can use to reach kids for Christ while they’re preparing them for the future.”
And so the Lifetime Learning Curriculum was born. Deloe’s four book set is aimed at inspiring and preparing children in poverty to become productive, Christian citizens. The collection features workbooks for Exploring (ages 5-6), Discovering (ages 7-8), and Achieving Life Skills (ages 9-12), as well as a Life Skills for Leaders project guide for teens. Each book has an extensive teacher’s manual.
The set revolves around six core values, repeated in each workbook: lessons in character development, decisionmaking, personal care, love matters, the value and use of money, and individual potential, especially in light of the Creator.
“I tried to make the lessons practical, where the rubber hits the road, so they can apply what they are learning to actual situations they’re in,” Deloe explains. To this end, units involve everything from playing games with no rules (so children learn why God set boundaries) to making investments with play money.
Deloe dedicated her collection to Connie Tabor. The Happy Church was essentially the springboard for what Deloe hopes will become a national ministry and Mike Tabor serves on the board for GiA.
Target audiences for the curriculum include inner-city community organizations and agencies, particularly churches.
“The goal is for churches to take these materials to their communities in the name of the Lord,” Deloe says. A number of inner city ministries in the Midwest and East have already shown an interest.
“My prayer is that GiA will be able to saturate the U.S. with the curriculum in the next five years,” Deloe says.
Toward that end, the organization petitioned to be recognized as a cooperating ministry in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) in 2009. “We felt that becoming a cooperating ministry with the FGBC would not only give us recognition, but credibility in addition to moral and financial support,” Deloe explains. It’s a partnership that may help grace in ACTION usa move to the next stage in its growth toward national presence.
“In addition to several generous grants, we’ve been blessed with gifts from the Grace Brethren Investment Foundation [GBIF] and donations from local churches,” Deloe stresses. The organization depends entirely on donations and grant money.
The majority of the organization’s board members are affiliated with Grace Brethren organizations. In addition to Tabor, board members include Ned Denlinger, Centerville, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church; Jim Hocking, Integrated Community Development International (ICDI); Tim Boucher, a music instructor in South Bend, Ind.; and Rhonda Graney, a guidance counselor at Pierceton, Ind., Elementary School.
For now, “the ministry is too young to have realized any lasting results, and it will be awhile until we see a dramatic success story,” Deloe says, but volunteers in local pilot programs “have seen definite attitude changes, and the students are talking about going to college or getting a job, so I’m encouraged.”
“I’ve had my own tutoring,” Deloe admits. “It’s been heartbreaking, humbling, and disappointing at times.” But she remains confident in and dedicated to the future of the organization.
“I’m praying that God will send us someone with a heart for the lost and the least to take over the ministry.”