FAITH IN SCHOOLS; Volunteers from Religious Groups Lend a Helping Hand. the Partnerships Benefit Students and the Community
Galnor, Matt, The Florida Times Union
Byline: MATT GALNOR
Carolyn Caines thumbs through an envelope full of box tops and soup labels, thrilled about the number of books she'll be able to haul into Ruth N. Upson Elementary.
She names off some of the Westside school's countless needs and how she tries to help fill the gaps as president of the Parent Teacher Association.
Caines, though, is neither a parent nor teacher.
But she is an active member of the Murray Hill Baptist Church, a block down Dancy Street from the school, and Exhibit A of the burgeoning partnerships between schools and religious groups.
Money is tight, and reliable volunteers are tough to come by, especially in neighborhood schools, which officials say tend not to always have the level of parental involvement seen at private or magnet schools.
It might be Conquerors for Christ mentoring Biscayne Elementary's fifth-grade boys in exchange for using the North Jacksonville school's auditorium for church services.
Or the Normandy Park Baptist Church helping to organize a fundraising golf tournament for Joseph Stilwell Middle School.
Or the Jacksonville Jewish Foundation providing birthday parties for students and other "little extras" for Lola M. Culver Elementary.
Faith-based organizations often have access to a substantial number of potential volunteers and experience in mobilizing them, said Karen Hanson, community involvement supervisor for the Duval County public schools.
The school system is currently updating its database of partnerships and Hanson did not know how many of the more than 160 schools are teamed up with religious organizations.
Hanson said everyone involved knows the religious lines that cannot be crossed in public schools, and no problems have been reported.
"The point is to develop responsible young men," Biscayne Principal Crystal Lewis says of her school's partnership.
'REAL TO THE BOYS'
On the first Friday of every month, the Rev. Romalous D. Jones Sr. mans the Biscayne auditorium, the same place where he holds church services Wednesdays and Sundays.
There's no religious bend on Fridays, though, when he addresses the three dozen or so fifth-grade boys lined up on the benches.
The boys take turns walking to the front of the room and sharing their definitions of respect, focus and what it means to be a mentor.
Jones then talks to the boys about heading to middle school next year, and how he'll be keeping an eye on them.
"Y'all think you'll be done and over with me, but I'll be popping in to make sure you're on track," Jones says.
Lewis said the toughest part about volunteers is a consistent commitment and people following through. With Jones, he's there - no questions asked.
"They run into Pastor Jones at the grocery store; they see him out and about in the community," Lewis said. "That makes him real to the boys."
Some partnerships are based on geography, others on history.
Decades ago, Jacksonville's Jewish community settled in the Panama Park area north of downtown and their children attended Lola M. Culver Elementary. So when the Jacksonville Jewish Federation was looking for a school to help in 2002, it was the perfect fit, said Joanne Cohen, assistant executive director for the foundation.
Cohen says the federation holds birthday celebrations every other month for the kids at the school. …