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Team Spotlight Dec 15

Service to Our Community Partner Spotlight: First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor

“We are a small, but strong, group of believers who are committed to spreading the Word and Deed of Christ in our neighborhoods, both near the church and near our homes,” reads the description of the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor. Since its inception, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor have benefitted from that commitment through a strong partnership with the Church.

The Church’s covenant with the Lake Michigan Presbytery is to serve the children of Benton Harbor. That is something they take very seriously. In the 1980s, the Church began an after-school tutoring program to help children in the Morton Hill neighborhood with homework. By the late 1990s, Church leadership began to see similar programs popping up in the local area and experienced difficulties with getting volunteers every day after school. Former Church pastor Reverend Doug Peterson and long-time Church member, educator, and founding board member of the Boys & Girls Club Virginia Maxwell discussed the problem. 
They determined that redirecting their participants to community-based programs and providing financial support to organizations running those programs was the best option to continue fulfilling the Church’s mission. So began the long-lasting partnership between the Clubs and the Church.

Today, the goal of the Church is not to create new programs, but to help support the many successful things already happening in the Benton Harbor community. The Church has generously supported the Clubs financially through unrestricted gifts, scholarships, and with specific projects. The partnership continues to expand and provide new mutually beneficial opportunities.

Every summer the Church hosts mission visits by other churches to Benton Harbor. A new group arrives at the Youth Campus weekly, prepared to help with program instruction, mentoring individual Club members and becoming an integral part of the Club’s capacity to offer summer programming for the more than 200 members coming to the Club. Interviewed as they depart, every group raves about the fantastic kids and program instructors they’ve gotten to know. More often they also comment about how their lives have been changed spending time at the Club.
Every Thursday evening, the Church provides a community supper, where anyone is welcome for a meal and fellowship. The purpose of the dinner is to lift people up and be supportive. At least once a month, Youth Campus members provide singing or dancing entertainment, help serve dinner and clean, and spend time socializing with the Church members preparing the meal. Pastor Laurie Hartzell, a member of the Church for over 20 years, said, “The kids are so excited to participate. They always want to do more, more than there even is to do!” She is also excited about the ownership that supper attendees are taking in the Clubs. “These are OUR kids,” she has heard them say. Pastor Hartzell has seen, firsthand, the difference that has been made within the city when local kids are volunteering to be such good stewards of the community.

The Church family has also been supportive to the Clubs in times of struggle. Pastor Hartzell and trained members of the congregation volunteer to counsel and talk with Club members and staff whenever tragedy and trauma affect the Club. The recent death of a Club member left youth and teen members, as well as instructors, dealing with their grief. The Church was there to counsel the grief and make sense of the misfortune thrust upon kids, their families, and our community.

“The Clubs are one of the best things in Benton Harbor,” says Pastor Hartzell. “We just want to continue to pour water on it and help it grow.”

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