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Project Transformation: Ministry empowers children in low-income areas Joan G. LaBarr, Sep 12, 2011
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PROJECT TRANSFORMATION
Intern Krista Olson hugs one of the Project Transformation participants.
By Joan G. La Barr Special Contributor
DALLAS—As Project Transformation marks its 13th year in the United Methodist North Texas Conference, there is evidence to show the innovative children and youth ministry is living up to its name. Some of the first children enrolled in the program are coming back as PT interns, college students returning to serve in the neighborhoods where they grew up.
In 1998 the conference launched PT as an urban outreach engaging college-age interns with children in some of Dallas’ most underserved communities. What began as a summer program with 22 interns and 250 children now thrives year-round, involving more than 100 interns and almost 1,000 children and youth with a million-dollar-plus annual budget, operating from eight church-based sites and a United Methodist-related community center.
Programs now include an expanded version of the original summer day camp for children in grades 1-5; a youth program for grades 6-9; a weeklong youth camp at Bridgeport Conference Camping and Conference Center; a pilot leadership training program for older youth; a year-round afterschool program; and communication and support programs for families.
Student interns, the heart of PT, receive a living stipend while serving and a modest scholarship for future education. A key component of the intern experience is living in community. Summer interns are housed on the campuses of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and Austin College, Sherman, while most year-round interns live in a fourplex apartment building leased from Tyler Street UMC in Dallas.
Although it is now an independent not-for-profit corporation, PT maintains strong connections to the North Texas Conference and more than 210 of its churches that have provided financial and volunteer support since PT’s beginnings. The conference and PT entered into a formal covenantal relationship in 2007.
Connection to the larger United Methodist Church remains a fundamental pillar of the PT ethos, even as the program has become very ecumenical in nature, especially in its work with children and youth from Catholic backgrounds.
Realizing a dream
Executive Director Eric Lindh, who has led PT for the past six years, sees adherence to three original goals as the key to its continued success:
• Helping the young adult interns to explore different ministries and develop as leaders;
• Helping underserved children and youth to grow in body, mind and spirit;
• Connecting churches with low-income communities.
Mr. Lindh says one of the joys of his job is watching the children, who begin PT as first graders, grow up. “It is the realization of a dream to see them come full circle as interns now working in their home communities,” he said.
There were four former PT children among the 103 interns for the 2011 summer day camp program, and two of those had served as interns before this year. Mr. Lindh expects the number to increase every year.
Reflecting on the goals, Mr. Lindh now sees the first and second melding into one. Participating youth age out of the program after ninth grade, but many continue the relationship as PT volunteers. This summer, 58 former day camp participants opted to volunteer, reading with children and assisting with other activities.
It is apparent to PT staffers that these young volunteers have potential to be future leaders. In that spirit, PT launched a pilot program this year called the Leader in Training Experience (L.I.T.E.) that drew 28 participants each Wednesday afternoon to a leadership event designed just for them.
The summer staff led the volunteers in an exploration of their leadership skills and how they could channel those skills into serving God’s kingdom. Other hands-on activities included lessons on respect, diversity, money management and goal-setting. The Rev. Tonya Burton of Perkins Youth School of Theology came as a guest speaker, addressing issues of conflict resolution and cross-cultural communication. The 10th-12th grade teens also spent a day visiting the Southern Methodist University campus.
“The hope is that through the skills they learn at PT, the young people will not only pursue college and become interns, but also continue as leaders in their own churches and communities,” Mr. Lindh said.
Naomi, one of the participants, said L.I.T.E. “was an amazing experience because I met the most amazing people who will always stay in my heart. Thanks to PT, I know who I am and what I want to be when I grow up.”
When asked what has changed about PT over time, Mr. Lindh said that in the beginning most of the focus was on the children. In recent years deeper involvement with whole families has become a central part of the program. Staff now does surveys of parents’ needs and evaluates the results and how best to respond. This has led to development of classes in areas like ESL at some of the sites, budgeting, financial management and parenting skills, including how to be helpfully involved in the children’s academic lives.
Family outreach has led to greater support from parents and investment in PT itself. One group of parents saw the need for better technology in an afterschool site at Casa Linda UMC in Dallas; they organized fundraisers and purchased laptop computers for the program.
Since all of the family outreach programs are at site churches, the programs have had another positive dimension. Often families who come for a program become familiar with the church itself, return for worship and eventually become church members.
PT is now expanding beyond its original Dallas base as former interns start similar ministries in other areas. One site has launched in Oklahoma City. An alumna in Nashville is preparing to launch a site there in 2012.
A group within the board will determine the relationship between the new chapters and the Dallas base. Two earlier attempts to expand PT did not last, so extra effort will go into developing plans that guarantee ongoing support and sustainability.
“One of the criteria that will not change as we grow is that any PT chapter must be endorsed by the annual conference in which it operates,” Mr. Lindh said. He added that the two PT alumni working to start the new chapters are very capable of being leaders who maintain the DNA and keep the culture of PT consistent.
The role of volunteers is part of this DNA, an aspect of the culture that PT leaders say the program could not exist without. More than 1,500 volunteers dedicated time and talents to serve PT this summer, totaling 7,168 volunteer hours spent reading one-on-one with children. Members from 88 partner churches also prepared meals for interns, and provided encouragement and financial support.
With the end of summer, PT moves into afterschool programs and recruiting next summer’s crop of interns. Summer intern contracts are finalized between September and January. Interns come from varied geographic areas and are ethnically diverse. They must have completed one year of college before making an application. There is also a new program in which college graduates may apply for a one-year internship and concurrent online Master of Arts program through Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan.
For information on internships, as well as the overall PT program, visit www.projecttransformation.org, or call (214) 946-3600. Internship statistics
To date, 752 young adults have served as PT interns representing 35 U.S. states and eight countries.
Sixty percent of alumni go on to work or volunteer regularly in some form of ministry or service.
Fifty-one alumni have enrolled or graduated from seminary.
The Rev. La Barr is the former director of communications for the North Texas Conference.