HENDERSON — Patti Lenehan is a woman of faith, but she had doubts she would ever see the Jesus Outreach for Youth club get off the ground.
“In the beginning, we thought, ‘I wonder if the school board is going to let us rent a room,’ and then we got that,” she said. “And then we thought ‘How are we going to get the money for this?’ and the money came and then ‘Where are we going to get the volunteers?’ and they came too.”
“So we have gone through all these stages of apprehension in the program and we have just seen God’s hand in it all the way,” she said.
The JOY club is a faith-based after-school club held once a week at E.M. Rollins, New Hope, Dabney and Aycock Elementary schools.
Despite the initial concerns, JOY club’s popularity is undeniable.
The schools have seen participation double and triple over the course of the year. Some schools have as many as 50 students registered, while the club leaders thought they would be lucky to see just 10 kids involved.
Scott Populorum, who grew up in Henderson and attended Vance County Schools, envisioned the idea for an after-school ministry when his kids attended school in Wake County.
“When I really saw the need for this in the schools was when my little girl got out of private school and went to public school,” he said.
Populorum’s daughter, who was in third grade at the time, would come home from school and repeat vulgar stories she heard her classmates tell.
“The goal is to cut a lot of the bad behavior out through teaching a child love and respect for authority and for their fellow students,” he said.
He first took the middle school program, which he called Campus Light, to East Garner Magnet.
After launching Campus Light in Wake County, Populorum realized the benefit it could have for the children of Vance County.
The JOY club, as it is called in elementary schools, ran for eight weeks in E.M. Rollins last year and then three more schools joined beginning this school year.
Lenehan said she got involved when she read a newspaper ad for the club last January.
She enlisted her daughters, Carey Ray and Christine Norton, and they took JOY club to Dabney, where Norton’s children attended.
Each week, the children are taught different Bible stories and lessons. The team leaders engage the kids with games and film clips related to the Bible verses.
All the kids receive a prayer journal where they write a different Bible verse every week.
But it’s not just about rote learning and memorization. The kids discuss what the verses mean and why they are important.
The prayer journal is also a space for the kids to express their thoughts and list people they want to pray for.
Norton said JOY club is similar to a character building program.
“It teaches integrity, honesty, kindness and forgiveness, all the things we want to be good citizens,” she said. “Some kids are just not getting that at home and this just a way to reinforce those character traits.”
The team leaders also want to create a safe environment at JOY club where the kids feel comfortable opening up and sharing.
Lenehan said one boy approached her at JOY club to talk about his pregnant sister fighting all the time with her boyfriend.
“That was not only an opportunity for us to build a closeness, but for him to get some answers as to how to deal with that in his home,” she said.
There was another one boy who asked the group to pray for his father because he was in the hospital with a gunshot wound, she said.
The team leaders want to expand to all 10 elementary schools and both middle schools, but that would require a consistent funding source and plenty of volunteers.
The costs are already a challenge. At $40 per hour, the price of renting a room once a week for nine months at one school comes to nearly $1,500.
Still, the JOY club leaders have faith the funding will come through.
“I think the Lord will grow it at His own speed, not mine,” Norton said.
In the meantime, the kids at E.M. Rollins, Dabney, New Hope and Aycock will continue to glean lessons from the Gospel every Thursday after school.
“These kids are getting to a point of hopelessness and whatever we are doing now is not necessarily offering them the hope they need or the problem solving skills they need to get beyond that,” she said. “So, if JOY club can be a positive influence in their lives and help them have hope, even when things are difficult, that is very valuable.”