KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s hard for Rachel Hostetler to pick a favorite story from her seven years with Freedom School, a six-week, full-day summer enrichment program held at Rainbow Mennonite Church.
She remembered how several years ago, special space was made for two children after their family experienced a tragedy. A few years later, the mother knew two children that wanted to return to Freedom School but had moved, so she went out of her way to help them sign up and provided transportation for them all summer.
Another year, a mother who wanted to give back to the program offered to design flyers for a Freedom School fundraiser.
“It gave her experience using the computer,” said Hostetler, executive director of Rainbow’s Freedom School and the community services coordinator for Rainbow Mennonite. “She was so proud. It was a big deal.”
But perhaps her favorite story is of a student who tapped into skills she learned at Freedom School and found a way to help a young boy having a tantrum.
“She came over to him and said, ‘I think your bucket needs to be filled,’ ” Hostetler said. She began telling him all of the things she liked about him and it worked to calm him down.
The curriculum for Freedom School is especially focused on learning through reading. That year, many students had received the book Have You Filled Your Bucket Today?, which uses a bucket analogy to teach children how acts of kindness can build others up.
“It’s an example of some of the ripple effects,” Hostetler said. “I don’t think she would have done that if she hadn’t been part of Freedom School.”
The school offers 100 local children who have completed kindergarten through middle school grades a safe place to supplement learning from their academic year and prevent summer learning loss. And it has also allowed Rainbow Mennonite to demonstrate a spirit of service in their community since 2007.
Freedom Schools began in the 1960s as alternative schools for empowering African-Americans in response to segregation. Today the Children’s Defense Fund operates the Freedom School program in 107 cities, serving 12,700 children. It is especially aimed toward low-income families.
This year, Rainbow’s scholars were 68 percent Latino, 11 percent African-American, 11 percent Caucasian and 10 percent mixed heritage. And 87 percent were eligible for free and reduced school lunches during the previous school year.
Wyandotte County, where Rainbow is located, has the fourth-highest poverty rate in Kansas, according to 2010 census statistics. Many members of Rainbow live in neighboring Johnson County, the state’s wealthiest county.
Ruth Harder, Rainbow’s pastor, said the 260-member church has focused on outreach partly as a result of this income disparity.
So in 2006, when a congregation in Kansas City put out a call for churches to become Freedom School sites with a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Rainbow was an obvious choice.
“Because we had such a long history of being involved in the community, the church applied and was chosen,” Harder said.
That year, Rainbow had just completed a large capital campaign and remodeling project.
“The place was quite pristine,” Harder said. “And the fact that the church, right on the heels of this project, opened its doors to over 100 kids is remarkable.”
Finding the funding
The school costs more than $100,000 annually to run, and finding funding has become increasingly difficult. Three years ago, the Kauffman grant, which once covered 90 percent of the costs, stopped completely.
“We made a special appeal to the congregation,” Hostetler said. “Their donations were critical in allowing the school to continue, along with a grant from the Schowalter Foundation and a discretionary grant from the Shumaker Family Foundation.”
The congregation could see what a difference the school was making in the community, Hostetler said. So in addition to hosting the school, the church took over as the sponsoring organization in 2014 on an interim basis. But they realized their sponsorship and increased donations weren’t a permanent solution.
Rainbow’s church council looked into making the Sharing Community in Rosedale, a 501(c)3 organization, the sponsoring entity. The Sharing Community had begun formally in 1977 with three local churches, including Rainbow Mennonite. They approached Alan Huxman, a member of Rainbow and board chair for the Sharing Community.
“SCR has gone through various iterations and wasn’t doing much for several years,” Huxman said. “I thought back in 2010 that we will know when the thing is here that SCR is needed for.”
With his leadership, SCR revitalized in 2013-14 to help Rainbow’s Freedom School become sustainable.
“Lots of Freedom Schools have just disappeared for lack of funding,” Huxman said.
A spirit of service
The SCR board is made up of church members and community leaders, including a parent of a Freedom School scholar, an employee of Google and Harder.
“That board has been busy getting grants from various sources, and we’ve recently, through a generous gift, established an endowment,” Huxman said.
Beyond donating the space and staff, Rainbow has contributed supplies, food and many other things. Six college-age youth from the congregation have worked as interns or teachers.
“Some people in the church think this is the most important outreach they do,” Hostetler said.
Many relationships are formed between church members and scholars.
Harder said the school and curriculum are secular, but it has helped the church establish its presence in the community in a spirit of service.
“I was raised in the idea of witness through service in a selfless manner of not asking for anything back,” Harder said. “I think [Freedom School] is very Mennonite in that way.”