Five years ago, four women from Wyoming United Presbyterian Church in Lackawanna Presbytery sat around Marge Zeigler’s kitchen table and discussed ways they could help the children in their community. These concerned parents, two of whom are also teachers in the local school district, began discussing the struggles of some of the elementary school students in their community and knew something had to be done.
“We sat around the table, and we talked about the needs that we saw,” said Michelle Klaproth, recalling that initial conversation. “We talked about a clothes closet and are there ways that we can reach out in that way? Then Erin (Ahearn) and I both said we’re hearing from the guidance counselors that there are kids that really need extra help, there are kids that need tutoring, but their families cannot afford it.”
Because Michelle and Erin are both teachers in the Wyoming Area School District, they were experiencing firsthand the struggles of their students. They knew a tutoring outreach at their church would be a great step in helping to get children who are struggling in subjects like reading and math the help they need.
“These are our kids in our district,” Michelle said. “These are the ones that we’re serving. This is where our church is.”
“We wanted to serve our community families by meeting their needs in a way that was manageable for us and our churches,” Marge added.
From these discussions the Tutoring Table was born. This opportunity targeted for kindergartners through fourth graders is available every other Wednesday evening and not only includes individualized instruction but also an optional meal, allowing the whole family to attend and benefit from the outreach. It also gives the leaders of the Tutoring Table an avenue to talk to the parents and see what else can be done for their children.
“B.J. (Ahearn) and her husband really do food well,” Michelle said, referring to the fourth person who was at that initial brainstorming meeting in 2018. “We want the families to stay. Some of it is about the fellowship. We have our volunteers come and they sit and eat together. There are families that are coming right from work and in some cases they could either use a break from cooking or could use to not have to pay for a meal a week. It’s meeting a need in a lot of different ways for a lot of different reasons.
“We also felt like it was really important to be able to take that opportunity to be visiting with the families of the kids to find out what are other needs that we didn’t know about.”
Having parents at the Tutoring Table allows some of the instructors to go over things like the “new math” and tips for helping children with spelling so that the parents can learn it and be better helpers to their children when the students come home with questions.
“Part of what we do is connect parents to some resources to help their kids,” Michelle said.
The Tutoring Table also utilizes high school Key Club and Honor Society members to assist with teaching, using those older students who might need service hours to help the church with its program. Church members have been helpful on those Wednesday evenings as well.
“In some cases we’ve used church members and high school students and all they would do is sit and listen to a kid read,” Michelle said. “That’s it. It’s not magic. Some kids just need someone to listen to them. They can also help with math flash cards or sight word flash cards.”
Grants acquired through the Synod of the Trinity and Lackawanna Presbytery have been instrumental in keeping the Tutoring Table self-sustaining, meaning it does not need to acquire funds from Wyoming United Church.
“It is nice to see the reaction from our members when new ideas are presented, and they get excited about ways that they can help,” B.J. said. “These programs have also allowed us the opportunity to meet the members of our community and get to know them on a more personal level. God is helping us to create a very loving and caring community in our small corner of the world. Hopefully it will be able to expand.”
Even though the Tutoring Table takes place in a church building, there is no direct religious aspect to the outreach. However, that doesn’t mean that Christian fellowship isn’t occurring.
“It has really, really served to connect us to our community in a really powerful way, not just us with our community but we have people who have formed really close bonds among the people who are serving,” Michelle said. “There’s a lot of fellowship that happens in between some of the families.
“There have been opportunities for us to open up with people,” Michelle continued, “not from a program standpoint, but from a relational standpoint. We’re a community of faith and this is what we’re called to do as believers. Some of them have come to church, many of them haven’t. There’s never any pressure for that.”
The Tutoring Table began as a three-month trial at the church, in part to monitor its successes and failures and also to alleviate the pressure of a year-long program in case it didn’t catch on. Only two families took part in the first session, but as word grew about the program, more and more families began to turn out.
“Although I love that we are serving families this way,” Marge said, “what is most satisfying for me is the Tutoring Table community we’ve created – the joy of relationship with these families whenever we cross paths around the neighborhood or at the church annual picnic and Back-To-School Fair.”
The coronavirus pandemic caused the program to take a one-year hiatus, but it is starting to regain the momentum it had prior to 2020. It continues twice a month, beginning at 5:30 p.m. with dinner, followed by the tutoring sessions from 6-7:15 p.m. An average of 15 students, the majority of whom are second graders, from 12 families are now participating, resulting in roughly 30 people who are attending the Tutoring Table every other week. Prior to covid, as many as 30 students plus their families were turning out twice a month.
“We are intentionally trying to rebuild it slowly, just because everything looks different now,” Michelle said. “We’re starting with a new crop of kids, and some of our volunteers are in different positions and aren’t able to help but we have picked up some new ones.
“The kids that come are excited to be there because they’re sitting with their friends and they get to hang out with the teenagers who they think are really cool. And the families really appreciate the help and extra resources.”
While the feedback from the participating students and families has been extremely positive and supportive, it’s been the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the church members that has stood out to the Tutoring Table coordinators.
“One of the best things has been not just the response from our community but the response from our own people,” Michelle said. “We’re making a difference here. We’re doing good things. It has spurred us on to ask what other needs are out there? What else can we do to help?”
A food pantry, summer Community Carnival and Back-To-School Fair are new outreaches Wyoming United Church has created because of the confidence it gained from the success of the Tutoring Table.
“We have seen the program grow in the relationships formed among our students and also their families,” Marge said. “Our own contact with them has helped us to discover and address other needs like food and clothing, and our food pantry and clothes closet have grown to meet them.”
“I think that once we started looking at what the community’s needs were, it allowed us to plan ways that our church could help to fill those needs,” B.J. said.
“It has been a bit of a spark for the people in our congregation,” Michelle added. “Obviously it’s good for our community but it’s also good for us.”
The Tutoring Table is just part of a remarkable journey for Wyoming United Church, a merged congregation that includes membership from the former First United Presbyterian Church of West Pittston that in 2011 was damaged so badly by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Lee that the church had to close its doors.
“When you go through something really hard like that, there’s a point where you just have to change,” Michelle said. “There’s a mindset for us that God has brought us to a lot of different places and he’s just not going to let us down. We have seen his hand in all of these things.”