Reading Mentor Joins ‘Stick Figure’ Family Portrait

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Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a freelance writer who loves to put words to the story of how God is at work. She also teaches music in her church's weekday preschool program, and loves a good day trip to The Biltmore Estate. Julia lives in Lexington with her husband Ed, and two children.

During the school year, Pastor Steve Burnette spends time every week with his reading buddy at the local elementary school. His church, First Baptist Williston, just finished its third year in the ministry that pairs first graders who are below reading level with an adult volunteer who gives them extra reading help. Reading Buddies is about more than literacy; it builds important relationships that convey love and support within the community.

“It’s amazing how you can become a strong voice in these children’s lives as an adult who cares and demonstrates love to them in just 30 minutes a week. Having an adult pay attention and connect with them, provides a tremendous incentive for these students to improve,” Burnette says.

His student buddy lives with a single-parent mother, a grandmother, and several siblings. Burnette describes the child as sweet, and a ‘bright light,’ which conveys how close the two have grown over time.

“I told him if he made a certain grade on a test he was taking, I’d come by and have lunch with him. He did well, so I brought a Happy Meal to celebrate together. As we walked to the lunch table, I went down the opposite side to sit across from him. When he realized I was going down the other side of the table, he came around so that he could sit beside me,” Burnette says.

Reading Buddy volunteers are encouraged to build relationships with their students. Burnette says, “People are our agenda,” and asks volunteers to intentionally connect with their buddy’s family. Reading Buddies are invited to all First Church Williston events, and some volunteers include their buddy in family activities, such as going to the zoo.

Burnette asked his buddy to draw a picture of his family one day, as a way for Burnette to learn more about them. The boy drew stick figures on the paper, each representing a member of his family. As Burnette asked about each stick figure, the boy shared something special about them.

“We went through his family, but there was one more stick figure in the picture. I asked who the extra person was, and he replied that it was me. Already he was including me as someone important in his life,” Burnette says.

Pastor Stephen Burnette meets with his reading buddy weekly during the school year, and says the ministry has ‘reoriented my life out of a Christian bubble, to begin to see people as God sees them.

First Church Williston reached 23 students through the Reading Buddy program this past year. Burnette says school administrators reported that all of the students improved their reading skills, and that some had increased their standardized reading test scores by as much as 30 points from the fall to spring testing. The principal and teachers have requested Reading Buddies for students in all grades.

Community members are beginning to volunteer, including a 90-year-old woman who met with two different buddies. “She has a passion for these kids, and that’s all it takes. If you can listen to a first grader read to you, and you have a love for the people Jesus died for, then you have all the qualifications to become a Reading Buddy. And be able to pass a background check,” adds Burnette.

Volunteers are coached to not walk into the school preaching the gospel, but they can walk in acting like Jesus. That posture allowed for Burnette to share the real meaning of Christmas with his buddy.

“I was able to share with him the Christ story. That was one of the first bumps of the gospel he’s ever had,” Burnette says.

According to Emory Hiott, education catalyst with the evangelism team of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, First Church Williston is an example of a church impacting its community through service.

“This rural church has become a strong pillar of support for not only the school’s administration, but also for its teachers, students, and families. They are loving their community with the outstretched arms of Christ, and so many beautiful relationships have been formed because of their willingness to cross the street and ask, ‘How can we help?’” says Hiott.

“This ministry has made our people more aware and willing to connect with their neighbors. I’m seeing our people live life on mission, and the community is becoming open to us loving them. Sooner or later, as God is working with people, they will think, ‘God, I need you.’ The next thought may be ‘First Baptist is a church that has loved us,’” he says.

As a small church of about 100 members, Burnette says First Baptist Willison invests several thousand dollars a year ‘loving on’ its community. He says the congregation has become engaged with gospel intentionality and regularly meets the needs of the elementary school and its staff. They provide meals and gifts of appreciation, volunteers for afterschool events, and offer the church’s facility for district and local school’s meetings.

“Spiritually, Reading Buddies has reoriented my life out of a Christian bubble to begin to see people as God sees them. They are the reason I’m here. And on a personal satisfaction level, I’ve learned that engaging individuals enlarges my heart. I now have a kid I wouldn’t have otherwise known, who will run up and hug me if I see him on the street. That alone is a witness to the gospel,” Burnette says.

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