McDowell Technical Community College

Spruce Pine UMC

The Lamplighters Afterschool Reading Program

By Rev. Jeremy Troxler

Mitchell County

A visitor who stops by Spruce Pine United Methodist Church on a typical Wednesday afternoon will discover a hive of activity.  Schoolchildren wearing grins on their faces and carrying heavy backpacks over their shoulders climb down the stairs of a big yellow school bus.  Soon one gaggle of kids is playing ball on the church playground:  another group is devouring a snack of crackers, fruit, and milk.  Shortly thereafter the volunteers appear.  Throughout the education wing of the building, a peak into each classroom reveals a different scene of focused effort.  In one room Reading Buddies are sitting at small tables with individual children, helping each child with his or her reading homework.  In another space a volunteer sits on a couch reading a story aloud as a group of kids listen and follow along.  Just a little further down the hall, past the line of backpacks now hanging from hooks on the wall, five children are gathered around a teacher as she goes over the pronunciation of specific words.  Across the way another group of students is working on a construction paper craft.

At the close of the day the children will stream from their rooms and congregate together in the church sanctuary for Chapel Time.  They will help light the candles, be reminded of the Golden Rule, act out a Bible story, pass around Prayer Bear, and be blessed as they leave for home – reminded that they are Lamplighters, beloved of God, and carriers of light.

  The Lamplighters Afterschool Reading Program described above is a ministry of Spruce Pine United Methodist Church and community partners that seeks the well-being of children and their families in heart, body, mind, and spirit by helping them to experience Christian love and to grow as readers and as persons.  Lamplighters operates on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons during the school year, and serves 20 local 1st and 2nd grade students from Greenlee Primary School who are behind their grade-level peers in literacy.  Now in its third year of operation, Lamplighters is overseen by a Board composed of church members, community partners, and educators.  The program is led by three part-time staff people, including a Program Coordinator (Dawn Hughes) and a Reading Coordinator (Kathey Hollifield), and depends on the contributions of about 15 weekly volunteers who serve as Reading Buddies and as assistants.

The story of how Lamplighters began involves many characters and chapters.  It begins with a pastor’s prayer that God would fill a barren Sunday School hallway with children being blessed by adults who love them.  It followed a parent’s realization that there were too few afterschool opportunities for children in Mitchell County, and was encouraged by a United Methodist initiative called Congregations 4 Children that invited churches to reach out to their local school system.  It depended upon a special needs educator with a literacy certification who dreamed of tutoring kids to read in her retirement, a state consultant for afterschool programs who wanted to use her passion and her knowledge to help her church reach more children, a well-connected lay leader with a big heart for young ‘uns, a retired school administrator who has dedicated her life to nurturing kids who have suffered from trauma, staff members who saw their work as a sacred calling rather than as a mere job, and a group of committed and supportive church folks who came together around a vision and were willing to work to see it happen.

The story of Lamplighters was spurred along by an energetic retired elementary-school principal, who, though suffering from the final stages of liver cancer, continued drawing up plans for the program on a yellow legal pad from his hospital bed.  It depended upon the open and warm response of local school officials – superintendents, curriculum specialists, principals, and teachers – who saw the program’s potential and who were willing to work in partnership with a local church.

        Lamplighters’ story is also a lesson about generosity and provision.  Start-up funding for the program was provided by the people of Spruce Pine UMC, by individual donors, and, especially, by a generous four-year grant from The Duke Endowment’s Rural Church division.  More recently, Lamplighters was honored with a $21,000 award by the Fund for Mitchell County through the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s People in Need grant program.  This new grant will fund the program’s Reading Coordinator position for the next two years, and will also enable her to receive special training to help the program serve children with learning disabilities.

Above all, the story of Lamplighters is a story about the grace of God:  about how God has called together a group of people for a good purpose, has provided them with everything they need, has kept them going amid many challenges, has used them to bless children – and then used those children to bless them just as much.  

Through Lamplighters the grace of God is making a difference in the lives of children, families, volunteers, and staff.  The children who participate seem truly excited to come to the program:  last year one child would wait near the door of his classroom at the end of the school day because he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss the announcement about the Lamplighters bus.  Parents are grateful to have a safe and nurturing place for their children to be after school.  Volunteers tell stories of kids sprinting up to hug them when they run into them at the grocery store.  The regular interaction with these loving adults seems to be a true blessing to children who need such nurture.

And yet Lamplighters’ impact goes beyond love to literacy.  Teachers say that the students are more engaged in class because they have completed their reading homework and because of the additional support that Lamplighters kids receive.  Several parents have related that, because of the program, their kids have been reading more at home:  some have even asked their parents to read with them for the first time.  Test results also seem to point to the positive difference being made by the program:  a high percentage of the Lamplighters kids show improvement in their reading scores, and a comparison of the initial test results suggests that students in the program make more progress than similar peers who do not participate in the program.

Such results that suggest that, by the grace of God, Lamplighters is living up to its name.

Back in the 1800s, when town streets had oil or gas lamps to provide light at night, the street lights had to be lit and maintained by a man who served as the lamplighter.  The lamplighter would walk down the street at dusk, and would go from pole to pole, climbing up a little ladder, reaching up and in with his stick, and lighting the lamp.  Everywhere the lamplighter went he left behind this little pool of light, this circle of illumination.

When he was a boy growing up in England, Robert Louis Stephenson (who would later write the book Treasure Island) was sitting once at his window, watching one of these lamplighters go along the street, leaving light in his wake.  His parents asked him, “Robert, what in the world are you staring at out the window?”

Robert Louis Stephenson said, “Mom and Dad, there is a man out there punching holes in the darkness!”

The Lamplighters Afterschool Reading Program is one attempt by Jesus’ people to punch some holes in the darkness, to shed some light into the lives of children.  If you would like to help us pass the light, we would love to have you join us as a volunteer reading buddy, or would be grateful for any financial contribution you might want to make to the program.  Or, if you want to learn more about how you might start a similar program where you are, we would love to have you come visit or talk with us:  just call us at 828-765-7446 or email us at spumcpastor@bellsouth.net.

What a blessing it is to work together to punch holes in the darkness; to let the light of Christ shine; to be a Lamplighter!

-Rev. Jeremy Troxler is blessed to serve as the pastor of Spruce Pine United Methodist Church.