After-School Special: Sojourner Ministries offers a safe place to learn, play, and grow

A student enrolled in the after-school program gets a snack and a little help.

For an hour and a half, twice a week, children in first through eighth grade who participate in the afterschool program at Sojourner Truth Ministries on High Street, can find a place to have fun, to get help with their homework and to just feel safe.

“We have cardiodrums, drum rhythm circle, foursquare, so the boys can be active right off the bat,” said Rev. C. Angelique Labadie-Cihanowyz, executive director.

“It’s OK if they’re active all the time – it’s not a structured program where they have to go from this to this to this. We offer homework help, mentoring, the group activities as well as chess and checkers and games and reading, which are more quiet, but focused,” she added.

Labadie-Cihanowyz said they have some ladies who have been planning for months and months to do drama activities and problem solving theater.

“The theatre stuff we feel will be great with collaboration and with voice. Tying life skills and life lessons right in with what it is they’re doing, whether it’s a modern day parable that we’re going to do, depending on age appropriateness or if they’ve decided here’s a problem that they want to solve or they need to process, we can do that. We’ll be prepared to do any of those things.We’re looking forward to that,” she said.

“The goal is to give children a voice and allow them to creatively work through scenarios like bullying, which we’ve heard from some of the kids they do face,” she said.

One of the children

actually ran into Sojourner because he was trying to get away from some kids who were bullying him and he came back the next week and stayed the whole time, she shared.

“We have healthy food for snacks. We’re giving them food, we’re offering them support for that hour and a half,” she added.

She told how one little boy comes early because he knows in that time before the other kids arrive that he can get one-on-one attention, “and he eats it up,” she added.

“The goal when we were planning the program is that we would get the opportunity to speak into kid’s lives, even if it’s just for a short time. Based on the demographics of the area they indicate there are a lot of different types of needs that are significant and so we really wanted to work on that. The overall brushstroke would be to give kids life skills and tools so that they would not be taken advantage of or there would be less chance for that,” she noted.

The hope is that the children will be able to use those tools to navigate their situations, whether it be various types of abuse, drugs, sex, bullying or all of those things. Labadie-Cihanowyz used the example of teaching a child that when they speak to someone, they should not look down, but look someone in the eyes.

“Sit up straight and use your voice as a power source of confidence. Look someone in the eyes, you should know what color their eyes are. All those little things that kids don’t know,” she said sharing what the staff tries to teach the children.

“We teach them to cross the street. We teach them not to touch a hot stove. They need to be taught if they get that ‘uh-oh’ feeling from a person that feeling is there for a reason, so how do you pay attention to that and not doubt it. what if that person is a neighbor, what if it’s a relative. What does that mean, they don’t need to know what that exactly means, but it means uh-oh, so pay attention that person could not have your best interest in mind and that’s what you have to pay attention to,” she added.

Other things come under the heading of life skills upon which Labadie-Cihanowyz and her volunteers focus, such as teaching the children that when you enter a room you should first look around to see who is there and to locate the exits. Perhaps a simple thing, but one that helps to keep the children safe.

“Those are just life skills that a lot of kids don’t pay attention to and put themselves in danger because of that.”

Labadie-Cihanowyz referenced the theme of the starfish story as an analogy for the work done at Sojourner. The starfish story is about making a difference, to one starfish at a time. You may not be able to throw all the starfish that wash up on the beach back into the ocean, but it matters to the one that you throw in on that day.

“Whatever we can do. It matters to this one today. If they have a place to be where they’re not getting beat up, OK. If they have a place to be where they can learn that they don’t have to lie for someone to like them, OK. If they have a place to come and read so they up their reading score because they’re a few years behind in school, that’s great. If they have a place where they can talk to someone, an adult or a child … it’s healthy,” she added.

Labadie-Cihanowyz noted that the afterschool program is a part of Sojourner Truth Ministries, “who loves all people because of the love of Jesus Christ and that undergirds everything that we do.”

She stressed that she does not have a Bible lesson or verses the children have to memorize.

“It is just showing love. There was a boy who asked who’s Jesus and we got to tell him,” she said.

In addition to the afterschool program, Sojourner Ministries offers “Dinner Church” beginning at 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s just meeting people where they’re at. They get an abbreviated message of hope and we pray,” she said, adding that at the end they open the doors to a side room where there is a modified buffet and the people bring their food back to the table. The food is provided by local churches who sign up online.

“That’s where ideally discipleship happens. I write out questions that are at the tables for people to have discussions about, to debrief the message,” she said.

Labadie-Cihanowyz pointed to a picture of the tables, noting that there was a Bible on each table.

“About 40 percent of our people don’t read. That’s OK, so we try to say everything aloud and work around it. Because the service is so condensed, if the discipleship can happen in the conversations around the table, that’s where people are growing,” she said, the excitement obvious in her voice.

In order to facilitate this, Labadie-Cihanowyz depends on volunteers or guests to lead the discussions.

“One of the goals with that was building community,” she said. She said she encourages the church members who bring the food to spend time with the people around the tables, just hanging out.

“It’s a better opportunity for them to interact naturally. Some of them do a phenomenal job with that. That’s where their transformation gets to happen too. It’s not going to happen so much on the other side of a table,” she said. “They might stay the whole time just talking and listening and valuing people. That’s huge.”

Sojourner also serves a continental breakfast and hot lunch Monday through Friday in the lower level of the building with the continental breakfast and dinner church on Saturdays. They are closed on Sundays.