ST. LOUIS — Gene and Karen Stewart know what it means to live and teach in the City of St. Louis — and they know the difference an adult mentor makes in the life of an at-risk child.
That knowledge prompted the retired teachers to become the first directors of the Kids Hope USA ministry at Third Baptist Church in St. Louis. Since 2007, the congregation has partnered with Cole Elementary School to provide mentors through the Kids Hope USA program.
According to its website, Kids Hope USA is a national ministry that focuses on connecting churches to their neighborhood elementary schools to assist at-risk students. The program is designed so that each adult volunteer is paired with one student at a time. The volunteer mentor deals only with that child until he or she moves away or completes the elementary years.
It differs from similar programs in that it directs mentors to engage with their child for only one hour each week and focuses on academics. Each pair remains at the school for mentoring. To avoid church-state issues, mentors are not allowed to evangelize or pray while at the school or on school grounds.
The Stewarts became involved, partly out of their love for students and of teaching and partly because they understand the needs of schools in the area. They served as co-directors for four years.
“The program proved a tremendous challenge because Cole is a school where nearly the entire student population is at-risk because of poverty and all that can come with it: old building, poor neighborhood, little or no parental involvement, hunger, low esteem, frequent moves, etc,” Karen Stewart said.
Since the church started mentoring at Cole, three principals have served and only one teacher remains of the faculty on campus in 2007. “This was not unexpected for Gene and me…. Our grandchildren make the fourth generation of our family to attend St. Louis Public Schools,” she said.
Gene Stewart taught in five different schools during his 34-year career with the St. Louis system. When he retired in 2000, the couple’s youngest daughter began teaching. “St. Louis Public Schools are in our blood,” Karen Stewart said.
When the Stewarts felt they needed to step down in early 2011, then-pastor Warren Hoffman approached Lynda Sharpe, who hesitated because she was undergoing cancer treatment. But with church support, she agreed and has not regretted the decision.
Sharpe points to students she believes have benefited from the congregation’s commitment to be involved in their lives. One student wrote a “book” each year that his mentor printed and bound for him.
She noted a brother and sister who responded to their love. A kindergartener, the little girl would hold onto her mentor and cry when she faced group events. But by the end-of-the-year party, she was able to laugh and join in the fun.
Sharpe serves as mentor to the brother, who was a preschooler when the pair started last year. “He would not talk or look at me,” she explained. “He did not know any of his letters, which meant he didn’t know how to write his name.”
The youngster began to respond, talking about his family and becoming more social in the classroom. “By the end of the year, he could write his name and recognize most of his letters. He is great at working puzzles,” Sharpe said.
“It has been a blessing to work with the students at Cole,” she added.
Karen Stewart sees the blessings as well. “It’s not always easy to be a mentor, but the good times make it worthwhile,” she said. “We often get smiles and hugs from the students. We share their successes. We often receive words of appreciation from the principal, teachers, support staff and parents.”
She believes the national program has reached thousands of children and expressed hope that the Third Baptist/Cole Elementary partnership would continue for many more years.