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Connections help Bethel College find its Columbus service project

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Bethel College worked on how to make “service” the central component of its presence at the Mennonite Youth Convention (MYC) in Columbus, Ohio, staff turned to the time-honored Mennonite tradition of networking.

For the second MYC in a row, Bethel’s offices of admissions and church relations wanted, “in lieu of giving away inexpensive trinkets,” as Director of Church Relations Dale Schrag put it, to use the funds designated for the youth convention display to encourage an ethic of service.

Youth who stopped by the Bethel College booth on the exhibit floor could help put together playground equipment to be given to FCI Academy Kindergarten Village in Columbus. They also had the chance to designate funds to a service organization of their choice.

Each of the four full days of the convention, individuals could put a ticket (sent ahead of time to all Mennonite Church USA youth groups but also available on-site) in the hopper. “The more times you visited, the greater the chance of being one of the three lucky individuals chosen on the last day of the convention to select a service organization to receive $1,000,” said Lori Livengood, Bethel’s vice president for admissions. Youth and sponsors were also invited to sign a different canvas every day, to be presented to each organization along with the check.

The three youth selected were from Kidron Mennonite Church, Kidron, Ohio; Harrisonburg Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va.; and University Mennonite Church, State College, Pa. The youth groups have a while to decide which organizations will receive the money.

While the three organizations that will receive cash gifts won by the luck of the draw, FCI Kindergarten Academy Village came to Bethel’s attention thanks to a series of personal connections in the Columbus area.

First, Schrag contacted Phil Hart, who was an admissions counselor at Bethel several years ago. He and his wife, Julie Hart, live in Columbus and are members of Columbus Mennonite Church. Julie was a professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Bethel and is currently associate professor at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, teaching courses in the peace and justice major. Schrag asked Phil Hart to suggest a Bethel project for the MYC.

FCI Kindergarten Academy Village “is kind of in my neighborhood and very close to the school where Julie teaches,” Hart said, but the real connection came through another member of Columbus Mennonite Church, Melonie Buller, “who works as the accountant for an organization that deals with people in housing crisis, through mortgage and finance counseling and other kinds of assistance. They also get grants to buy and rehab old houses to help rebuild neighborhoods.

“I asked Melonie if she had any suggestion through her contacts with other organizations doing work with ‘at risk’ neighborhoods,” Hart continued. “Through her list, I [contacted] Sharon Francis, who works with an organization called MiraCit that is working to revitalize the neighborhood where FCI is located.”

Hart added, “It’s all about networking. I guess the important lesson is that you can’t network unless you are in actual working relationships with the people you are trying to serve. Melonie is doing great work outside of her office in supporting peace activities locally and nationally.”

For Shawn Connors, FCI Kindergarten Academy Village principal, however, it’s pretty simple. “I do not know how Phil got in contact with the school,” he said, “but I am sure our Lord had his hand in it.”

FCI’s vision for education (the acronym stands for both Focus on Collective Integrity and Faith Center International) comes from Dr. Edgar A. Posey, bishop and pastor of Living Faith Apostolic Church, who wanted “to create a learning environment for urban children in the Columbus area that would not only offer an exceptional academic experience but would take a holistic approach to the enhancement of social development, college preparation and life skills application,” according to the FCI history.

FCI Academy High School opened its doors in September 2004 to 27 students in grades 9-11. By spring 2006, FCI had expanded to include grades 6-12, graduated its first senior class and ended the school year with a student body of 400-plus. The following fall, Kindergarten Academy Village opened. FCI Academy is one of the largest and fastest growing charter/community schools in the state of Ohio, with 650 students and a faculty and staff of 85.

FCI Academy offers core curriculum subjects plus supplemental education in areas such as vocal music, physical education, dance, computer technology, foreign languages and American Sign Language. It is tuition-free, working with local organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of America Columbus Chapter, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the University of Dayton, Ohio Dominican University, the Boy Scouts of America and many others.

FCI Academy is closely connected to MiraCit Development Corporation, Inc., a not-for-profit, certified community housing development organization formed in 1993, once again out of the vision of Dr. Posey, to spearhead revitalization in economically distressed areas within Franklin County, Ohio. Its principal service area centers on the Mock Road community in northeast Columbus, the location of FCI Academy.

According to MiraCit’s vision statement, its “challenge [is] to be a model city within a city – free of crime, free of drugs, an area in which people can take pride in homeownership, have stable employment, own and support their own businesses [and] have good educational facilities and programs and much-needed neighborhood services.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09.

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