The Most Valuable Gift

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As I write this, families in our community are getting ready for the start of the new school year. Teachers are decorating classrooms, parents are shopping for school supplies, and students are comparing schedules. Summer is coming to an end, and a new year of potential lies in front of us.

My church, like many churches, has an adopt-a-school relationship with two public schools in our community. Our most significant contribution to the elementary school in our neighborhood is through our Kids Hope USA mentoring ministry. This ministry pairs trained adults with students in a one-on-one mentoring relationship. Each pair meets for one hour every week.

Sometimes, the child’s teacher might send them with an assignment that they need help completing, or give the mentor suggestions for academic skills the child needs to work on. However, most of the time the pair spends together is not spent on schoolwork. They might do crafts together, build something together, kick a ball together, eat breakfast together, play board games together, write thank you notes together, or read a book together. (Do you notice a theme, here?)

Some administrators do not welcome a Kids Hope program in their school because it pulls the kids out of the classroom for one hour every week. When I spoke with the principal of our adopt-a-school about this ministry, however, I received a very different perspective. He told me that, in his experience, the Kids Hope model of mentoring is the most effective model for helping children improve their academic skills. He named a number of other programs our district has encouraged over the years that involved community members engaging with the kids – even several that involved one-on-one time with the kids. Most of these models followed a particular curriculum that was designed to help the kids improve their reading skills. The format was similar: adults came in for an hour every week and worked one-on-one with kids who were identified as needing extra help. But even if the adults worked with the same child, week in and week out, the results were not as good as he saw with Kids Hope.

What made the difference? Relationship. The emphasis with Kids Hope is on building a relationship with the child. Many adults who begin mentoring a child in a younger grade continue to visit that child weekly until the child graduates from the school. Some continue to visit with the child in middle school. The child knows that this adult is there just for them. They also know that the adult isn’t there to tutor them; “success” isn’t defined by whether or not the child’s grades improve. The adult is simply there to be a caring adult for this kid.

The principal shared that this relationship, this sense of being valued by a caring adult who is there just for them, can improve a child’s ability to navigate the school day and the work that comes with it. Teachers find that children who are engaged in Kids Hope mentoring relationships can develop a confidence that improves their ability to succeed in the classroom. “Let the teachers teach,” he said. “I don’t need the mentors to do that. But when the mentor contributes to a child’s sense of self-worth, it improves the chances that the teachers will be able to do their jobs more effectively. It’s a win-win for us all.”

It should be said that the Kids Hope model also involves a behind-the-scenes Prayer Partner. While religious conversation is not part of the mentoring relationship, the child knows that there are two adults who care for them in this relationship. God created us to be in relationship Рwith God and with one another. This is part of the Kids Hope model, and surely a factor in its effectiveness.

This post isn’t intended either as a shameless plug for Kids Hope USA or as a statement that tutoring children in math or reading is ineffective. I don’t offer scientific evidence to prove the power of relationships. But I know there is truth in what the principal says.

When we approach a need in our society from a missional perspective (i.e. How can we help fix this?), it is tempting to look at the presenting problem and try to solve that problem. If reading scores in our school district are down, it seems natural to seek to improve students’ reading ability by tutoring them in reading skills. It doesn’t seem obvious that reading scores might be as likely, or more likely, to improve for a student if we play four-square with the child for an hour every week while talking to them about their favorite video game. But when we are mentoring a child in school, teaching a community computer skills class, or working alongside our neighbors in a community garden, we should never underestimate the value – not just of the skills we are sharing – but the relationships we are willing to build.

Prayer Focus: Pray for teachers who seek wisdom on how to reach and teach the children who don’t find school work easy.

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