Grace UMC: A Small Church with a Wide Embrace for Children

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NTC AC Violin Performance

Grace UMC and Lakewood UMC Help Students with Music, School and Food

NTC AC Violin PerformanceGrace UMC, at the corner of Haskell and Junius in old East Dallas, has stepped up its “good neighbor” policy over the last few years by reaching out to some of our youngest and most vulnerable neighbors, the students of Zaragoza Elementary School. Every week, Lisa Tully, Nicole Melki, Chris Ozley, and dozens of other volunteers share their gifts and talents with the children of Zaragoza.

Under the direction of Lisa Tully, Grace UMC has partnered with Kids Hope and Zaragoza to begin a one to one mentoring program for the children. Once mentors are screened and trained, they spend one hour per week during the school day helping their child with homework, talking, reading, or playing games together. We have mentored 19 different students, and mentor Carol St. George has had the same student for four years.

Lisa recently recounted an early experience she had with Kids Hope. She was going to the classroom to meet her first student for the first time. She recalls seeing a very active little girl explaining to her teacher that she wanted to be friends with a new student because she didn’t have any friends. As it turned out, that child, who felt as though she had no friends, found one in her mentor. Lisa let her know every week just how special she was!

Through the One+One initiative, Bishop Mike McKee asks the powerful question, “What would it be like if we once again recovered the early movement of Christianity and Methodism, and that is, we left buildings and we went to where people are?”

Ubuntu Music Project uniquely answers this question by combining the power of music and academic tutoring in the heart of East Dallas at Zaragoza Elementary School, where 98% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Two classes of students receive four days of violin instruction for one hour daily led by Director Nicole Melki, and receive one hour of academic tutoring daily with Grace UMC and Lakewood UMC members. Community transformation has taken place as students not only learn to play the violin beautifully, but also receive One+One mentorship, care, and time in the academic program. In 2016, 100% of the students who graduated from Ubuntu Music Project were accepted into a high-level magnet arts school, rerouting their trajectories to the nationally recognized Booker T. Washington High School. Teachers at Zaragoza Elementary have witnessed a transformation in the students’ lives as evidenced by a dramatic increase in grades, passing of the STAAR tests, and social well-being.

Parents of Zaragoza Elementary School students.

For one of these students, Manuel*, this has looked like remarkable growth. Manuel’s teachers noted that the focus and discipline needed to play the violin dramatically increased his ability to focus academically. In addition, his social well-being improved drastically as his connection with his One+One mentor provided academic support, encouragement, and a place to fit in. Director Nicole Melki witnessed that Manuel’s focus and drive to succeed in violin not only increased, but also his self-esteem, as he began to reciprocate the care he had received by becoming a friend and mentor to his peers. “Ubuntu” has its origins in several of the Bantu languages of Southern Africa. It is often translated to mean, “I am because we are.” The One+One partnership between Grace UMC and Lakewood UMC, Zaragoza Elementary School, and the Ubuntu Music Project, has put Ubuntu into action, bringing the community together to empower young leaders to transform their communities and the world.
*name has been changed.

United Methodists from around the North Texas Conference heard and witnessed the powerful gifts of young violinists from the Ubuntu Music Project at this year’s opening worship service for annual conference. With the children’s violins held high playing beautiful music, United Methodists were ushered into worship with the song, “We Are Walking in the Light of God.” Indeed, these young violinists are walking in the light of God and experiencing God’s love through a partnership that was born out of Grace United Methodist Church and Ignacio Zaragoza Elementary School and joined by Lakewood United Methodist Church.

Zaragoza Principal, Angela Bell, and Chris Ozley, serving as Principal of the Day

Zaragoza Principal, Angela Bell, and Chris Ozley, serving as Principal of the Day.

As the relationship between Grace UMC and Zaragoza grew closer, a need became apparent. While their nutritional needs are met during the school day, far too many of the children do not have enough to eat at home. When Chris Ozley, church member and PTA President, conveyed this need to Rev. Judith Reedy, Senior Pastor at Grace, she immediately offered her support and Food for Thought became a reality. Through this program, Grace UMC members provide weekend food for those children in need. Pastor Reedy authorized a Communion Rail Offering to the program and called for members to donate food on the third Sunday of each month. Volunteers make up bags for the children to carry home on Friday afternoons. Church member, Mark Walker, used social media to find additional support for the program. As a result, checks have now been sent from all over the Metroplex, and YogaSport of Plano will be providing food for the Christmas Holidays for these children.

Through its involvement with Zaragoza Elementary and Grace UMC, Dallas, this program has touched the lives of many students and those students have, in turn, enriched the lives of our volunteers.

Nicole Melki, Lisa Tully, and Chris Ozley contributed to this article.