Recently, the church started a ministry called the Sapphire Early Learning Center to serve kids from infants to age 12 with care, preschool and after school programming. The church also has a huge construction project in the works.
Pastor Sarah Merchant said that they will continue to serve the community while the construction is underway.
“We still have space to offer to any students who need supervision and space to do distance learning and we have after school programming for ages 5-12,” Merchant said. “Students from any school would be welcome.”
Because each school is doing technology in unique ways this fall the program will work in a variety of ways. Stevensville schools checked out chrome books for students in need of a computer. Students will bring those computers to the UMC fellowship hall where they can spread out 6 feet apart. Masks will be required as will twice-a-day temperature checks and extra sanitizing. There will be mask breaks, recess time outside and special learning centers.
“So it becomes a physical school environment even while they are doing a virtual school,” Merchant said.
The program will serve 24 students with spacing in three classrooms between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. for distance learning and between 4-6 p.m. for the after school program.
“Anyone can do the after school program if they are in class or not and anyone can be distance learning,” Merchant said. “We’re open all the time so if families tried in person and decided it is just not going to work to go back and forth then we’re available to be a space for them. Or if they said from the get go, ‘we’re going to be distance learners,’ we’ll be a space for them.”
The program is a licensed learning center that follows specific requirements.
“Adults have to have background checks and finger printing and also have to have some early education background,” Merchant said. “We have just hired a new teacher with those qualifications. We’ll also have volunteers to provide extra assistance [with technology], especially for younger kids who need help with various apps or figuring out how to maneuver on the computer.”
Their goal is to have a small student to teacher ratio with supervision by an early-childhood teacher.
“We don’t have to have a license to have an afterschool program or a distance-learning program but we are raising the bar in order to meet the requirements for the other programs we want to do,” Merchant said. “We are trying to get that qualified of personnel.”
A federal grant allows this program to be free this fall and the Stevensville school is still providing sack lunches for students.
“We’ll be able to pick up sack lunches for students who come here,” Merchant said. “So not only is tuition free but so is lunch.”
Merchant has been the pastor of the Stevensville United Methodist Church for 16 months. She said the idea for the program was born out of a necessity to fix their historic building that was originally built as a school in 1891.
“We have a 50-year-old roof on a 100-plus-year-old building and those kinds of capital improvements require major funds,” Merchant said. “We are also doing some re-imagining about what happens under the roof. We were thinking about what is our ministry in the community.”
When she first came she assessed the community and discovered a need for after school programming and care for young children.
“We began with a small dream of opening a learning center for young kids then when COVID hit we recognized the flexible care that we might need to give,” Merchant said. “We said ‘we have internet and we have space and we can do this.’ It came from a heart for taking care of kiddos, students and families in our community. It is part of our mission and we want to be available to meet the needs that are right now.”
The afterschool programming includes playing games, reading and homework assistance.
The Sapphire Early Learning Center program director is LaRee Jessop who is also the director of the Bitterroot Early Learning Center in Corvallis.
“We partnered with her from the beginning,” Merchant said. “She has been a huge asset in not only knowing what learning centers are all about but being a great advocate for students thinking broadly how we could care for them and their families and seeking the funds necessary, especially during a time with COVID.”
Registration for the program was on Thursday and class begins on Friday.
Stevensville United Methodist Church held a ground breaking ceremony on Oct. 4. The construction on the east side of the building will include removing the current fellowship hall and building a 7,000 square foot space with a fellowship hall, five classrooms, a new kitchen and ADA compliant bathrooms. The 1891 school building became a church in 1926 and still has a weather vein with a quill instead of a cross.
“I feel like we’re coming full circle to be in the education process of our kids,” Merchant said. “The congregation is really behind this. We’ve had community donors provide seed money and we’ve received several grants both locally and nationally.”
The church still needs to raise about $1.2 million for the building project. The Sapphire Early Learning Center is a nonprofit and has a supportive board of directors including Jessica Shourd, principal of Stevensville Elementary School.
“For all that 2020 has been, I keep thinking what a great gift it is to have a purpose,” Merchant said. “I think that has really given us some energy in the midst of all of this.”
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