By Vicki Ackerman
“Dear Dr. Virgil: Thank you for coming up with Kids Hope. It has made my life a lot easier.” – Mikey
“Dear Mr. Gulker: Thank you for starting Kids Hope. I really like it. It works!” – Brandon
“Mrs. Ackerman: Thank you for bringing Jill into my life. I don’t know where I’d be without her. I can’t wait to participate in the Kids Hope program and help someone like she helped me.” – Stephanie
A 2015 high school graduate, Stephanie Erickson, dreams of two things: studying to be a teacher and becoming a Kids Hope USA mentor. Because her own mentor, Jill Thompson, formerly of Vicksburg, believed in her, she has faith her dreams will come true.
Stephanie had to fight to receive her diploma. A sudden move to a new school district in her senior year meant a new list of credit requirements. Knocked off her game by the move, she failed one of those classes. But Miss Jill had taught her that it was OK to fail, to learn from the mistakes and to begin again. So that’s what Stephanie did. She took the class again, and then again, until she conquered the material. Stephanie wants the world to know that Miss Jill was the spark for her success and the inspiration behind her dream of becoming a teacher. Thompson was an honored guest at Stephanie’s graduation celebration.
In 1995, Dr. Virgil Gulker, founder of Love, Inc. and Rev. Rick Tigchon and Mary Elzinga of Lakeland Reformed Church, approached Sunset Lake Elementary Principal Pat Moreno, about a new idea for an accountable mentoring program. International Aid, seeking to break the cycle of generational poverty, had discovered that mentoring programs had a high failure rate. They enlisted Dr. Gulker to explore this problem and design a sustainable model. It was his vision to tap the largest resource of volunteers – local churches – and match those churches with the schools in their communities. Kids Hope USA (KHUSA) became that model.
You can imagine all the red flags Moreno saw popping up. But she did not turn Kids Hope away. Instead she invested many hours going over the brand new program guidelines word by word with Lakeland’s first Kids Hope director, Mary Elzinga. The two of them began to shape the presentation for Patricia Reeves, the Vicksburg superintendent. Dr. Gulker often remarked that when he was finally able to satisfy the two Pats’ strict requirements he knew he could present the program with confidence anywhere in the country.
Lakeland Reformed Church sent its first team of mentors to Sunset in the fall of 1995. The following year, the Vicksburg United Methodist Church launched a partnership with Tobey Elementary School and in 1997 Chapman Memorial was on board to provide mentors for students at Indian Lake.
Twenty years later, over 16,000 children are served in 34 states by what has become America’s preeminent mentoring model. The Vicksburg Community helped make that happen! To many it seemed an impossible, even ridiculous idea, this matching of churches and schools. Because the Lakeland family and their first contact, Pat Moreno, listened and knew that some ideas could change the world in the most profound ways. Kids Hope USA got a major boost in its infancy and the opportunity to grow and flourish.
To mark this milestone, and to launch the next twenty years of Kids Hope, Lakeland Reformed Church is holding an open house in its Family Life Center on Saturday, October 24, from 5 until 6:30 p.m. At 6:30 guests will move to the sanctuary for a service of recognition and re-dedication.
Lakeland hopes that anyone and everyone connected with KHUSA will come to the open house and stay for the service. In the Kalamazoo area alone there are more than 26 programs. The invitation is being shared through the directors of those programs, but Lakeland hopes that all South County News readers will spread the word through social media. They are especially eager for the kids from any program in the area from 1995 to 2015 to come back, share their memories, and perhaps reconnect with their mentor.
KHUSA founder, Dr. Gulker, Kids Hope National Director, Chris Reinsma, and the first National Director, Mary Elzinga, will be honored guests. KHUSA president, David Staal, will speak via video.
Twenty years ago eight churches believed in the power of a mentor; believed that the boundaries of church and state could not only be honored, but navigated with integrity; believed that the voice of a child mattered; believed that the model One Church, One School, One Child, One Mentor, One Hour, could give strength to that voice. They also believed that helping a child reach full potential when the world had set the child up to fail would not only change the life of that child but change the world. If Kids Hope has touched your life, or if you have a passion for promoting the well-being of children and want to learn more about this unique and powerful mission, make your way to Lakeland Reformed Church Saturday, October 24th!