The Child Advocacy Movement of the Children’s Defense Fund has taken root across the United States. And, thanks to the United Church of Christ’s Deaconess Foundation, that movement is helping St. Louis-area children close achievement gaps through a seven-week CDF program inspired by the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, brought the CDF’s Freedom Schools summer program to the St. Louis area in 2017 following a three-year period of introducing the idea to area UCC congregations, other CHHSM-member ministries, and students at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo. A key motivating force for local participants was a presentation by the Rev. Reginald Blount, Ph.D., whom Deaconess Foundation sponsored to present his CDF Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry workshop on Freedom Schools to area UCC congregations.

“In 2014, Deaconess launched a strategy to offer proximity to children’s issues as a means to cultivate congregations for advocacy,” says Constance Rush, director of advocacy for the Deaconess Foundation, which included presentations in church settings, volunteer opportunities, and participation in the annual Missouri Child Advocacy Day. “In 2017, in partnership with St. Louis Association congregations, Deaconess sponsored CDF Freedom Schools at Peace United Church of Christ, Hope United Church of Christ, and St. John’s Church (The Beloved Community) UCC.”

The CDF Freedom Schools program partners with local congregations, schools, and community organizations to build strong, literate, and empowered children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation and world. It provides after-school and summer reading enrichment for children who might otherwise not have access to books, and plays a much-needed role in helping to curb summer reading loss and close achievement gaps to create a level playing field for all children. Since its founding in 1995, more than 137,000 pre-K through grade 12 children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience, and more than 16,000 college students and young adult staff have been trained to deliver this empowering project.

An activity from one of the 2017 Freedom School classes.

“Deaconess Foundation sponsors a network of CDF Freedom Schools for children in grades kindergarten through 5 in the St. Louis region,” says Rush. “The seven-week program provides summer enrichment around five essential components: high-quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, civic engagement and social action, intergenerational leadership development, and nutritional, physical and mental health.”

The enrichment is driven by CDF’s Integrated Reading Curriculum, which includes carefully chosen, developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant books. Last year, the program served more than 12,225 children at 173 program sites in 89 cities and 27 states across the country.

Freedom School Philosophy Dovetails with Deaconess Foundation Vision

The Freedom School educational philosophy is simple. It centers on the premise that all children are capable of learning and achieving at high levels, and literacy is essential to personal empowerment and civic responsibility. Culture and community conditions influence child learning, so appreciation and knowledge of one’s culture helps develop self worth and the ability to live in community with others. Parents are crucial partners in the process, as are teachers and other mentors who serve as transformative agents for the young scholars.

Story time in a 2017 Freedom School classroom.

Deaconess Foundation has been approved by the Children’s Defense Fund for programs at Peace, St. John’s, and the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being in 2018. In addition to the literacy-building and empowerment activities, the Deaconess program provides meals, snacks and other activities, including field trips, at no charge to families. The program also includes extensive testing and evaluation to measure academic progress. A total of 125 scholars will be served from St. Louis and Webster Groves schools and UCC congregations. Enrollment is free and open to all families.

The Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being was consecrated during the CHHSM Annual Gathering in March. It serves as a community action tank, offering a place for ministry partners to meet, strategize, and advocate for children. The building also houses offices for some of Deaconess’ missional partners, including another CHHSM member, Unleashing Potential.

According to Wilson, the newly-opened Center will host more than 6,000 child advocates, civic leaders and community organizers per year in more than 350 gatherings focused on children’s policy. Meeting space is granted at no cost to groups and convenings focused on shifting public policy for children aligned with Deaconess’ vision and values. The CDF Freedom Schools program fits well with Deaconess Foundation’s mission and ministry.

“As  faith-filled voice for children’s hope-filled futures, Deaconess Foundation seeks to engage United Church of Christ congregations of the Missouri Mid-South and Illinois South Conferences of the UCC, located within its grantmaking footprint, in advocacy for children,” says Wilson. “As an advocate and investor in child well-being, Deaconess views partnership and proximity as critical elements to engage the congregations in fulfilling this strategy.”

Learn more about the Deaconess Foundation’s Summer 2018 Freedom Schools.