By Erik Alsgaard
What do you call it when 90+ elementary-aged children spend four days a week for eight weeks during the summer, reading more than 1,450 books and maintaining or improving their reading skills?
In Washington, D.C., this summer, it was called Project Transformation. And it wasn’t only the young children who were transformed; young adult leaders and congregations had that experience, too.
Coming together in early August at a banquet to celebrate the program’s success, leaders, staff and children all shared stories of what Project Transformation meant to them.
Rachel Luna, Executive Director of Project Transformation DC since last November, hatched the idea as part of a school project while enrolled as a Fellow at Wesley Theological Seminary’s Institute for Community Engagement (ICE).
“I was kind of lost with what I was supposed to do in that fellowship,” Luna said. “This evolved out of an asset mapping project of looking at education in DC and seeing these huge holes. Hopefully, being able to use the power and the physical space of the church provides a patch for one of those holes, which is the fact that so many kids lose reading levels during the summer.”
Combine the local church resources with kids needing to read and young adults who want to serve, Luna said, and coming alongside Project Transformation was easy.
According to its website, “Project Transformation was founded in 1998 by Sarah Wilke and Dr. Leighton K. Farrell, two visionary leaders in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church.” Project Transformation formed a separate, national nonprofit organization in 2015 through an investment from the Young Clergy Initiative of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Project Transformation Washington, D.C., is part of this nationwide effort.
Luna was hired full time in November 2017, but “this has been a project since early 2016” for Washington, she said.
Project Transformation is a “ministry that focuses on what we call ‘The Three Cs’,” said Luna: children, college students, and churches. “We engage young adults in meaningful leadership and discernment opportunities while serving children in a holistic manner, and opening churches up to different and new ways of reaching out to their communities.”
In short, United Methodist churches in D.C. opened their doors for eight weeks of literacy-based summer camp, staffed by volunteers and 14 young adult interns from around the country. Two so-called “house pastors” – students at Wesley – also served.
The Rev. Paul Johnson is pastor at Hughes Memorial UMC, one of the host churches, and on the Board of Directors for Project Transformation DC. He said participating in Project Transformation helped to transform his church.
“It was a way to bring vitality to our church,” he said, “while at the same time, the young adults and the children brought new life to us in this summer camp experience.
“From day one, our church saw it as an opportunity to interact with the community,” Johnson said. “It was spearheaded by our United Methodist Women, but others joined in. This was a way to do more than we ever could on our own.”
As the children were engaged in structured activities during the day, Luna said the staff noted a decrease in behavioral problems as the summer progressed. In addition to practicing reading skills, emotional, learning and behavioral education was offered.
“Our interns showed so much love and patience with the children,” Luna said.
Brighter Day Ministries (formerly A.P. Shaw and Congress Heights UMC) served as the other host church for the camp. Partner churches throughout the area assisted with money, volunteers and other resources.
A typical week of camp saw children attend Monday through Thursday, Luna said. Friday’s were reserved for the interns to have time for reflection, learning and connecting with each other, she said. It was also a time for them to listen to where God might be calling them in their lives.
Each young adult received a living stipend, paid for partially by the church, room and board, and dinners provided by the churches four nights a week, Luna said.
One tragic experience that transformed the young adults was gun violence. A shooting of a young girl, known to some of the campers, occurred just blocks from Hughes Memorial during camp. And another shooting took place just one block from the church while the children were in the church, Luna said.
“It’s been a learning experience and an eye-opening experience for some of our interns,” said Luna. “For some of them, this is the first time they’ve faced gun violence and poverty of this type.”
Sean Gray, an incoming student at Wesley from Pennsylvania, served as an intern.
“Coming in to it, I was really nervous,” Gray said. “I had no idea what to expect. But very quickly, I found out that I loved and cared for these kids. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Half of the 14 interns served at Brighter Day; the other half at Hughes Memorial. Gray served as a sort of “team leader” at Brighter Day with the older group of children – those in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
“One week, I was doing science experiments with them,” he said. “I was teaching them about inertia and I had a bucket of water with me. I told them that I could take this bucket and hold it over my head upside-down without the water spilling out. Once I finally swung the bucket over my head, all of their faces just lit up. It was such a heartwarming experience.”