The two little boys were silent—a stark contrast to the non-stop chatter that had taken place in the car ride to the hotel where they lived with their mom, stepdad, and two little brothers. The strong smell of smoke was difficult for me to handle and my eyes were still adjusting to the darkness of the hotel hallway. We had taken a van full of kids from the hotel, which served as a homeless shelter, to our church for a children’s event and had now driven them back. The mothers of the other kids had met us at the back door, but these brothers’ parents were not there. I had walked them to their room and knocked on the door. The six-year-old moved closer to me. We waited with no response and the eight-year-old, trying to sound responsible said, “I know they are here because their car is outside!” We knocked again. I could hear a baby crying loudly from inside. After waiting and knocking for a few minutes, the door finally opened. The smell from inside the room was worse than the smell in the hallway. The stepfather opened the door and looked like he could hardly stand. He leaned against the doorframe for support. Looking into the room with the curtains closed, I could see the mom on the bed—she wasn’t moving and her eyes were closed. The baby continued to cry. The boys looked up at me. Tears were coming to my eyes so I hugged them quickly and told them we’d see them in a few days.
After the door closed, the tears spilled. Lord, I prayed silently, I can’t leave them! I can’t let them stay there! My heart ached for those boys so badly! I stood there not wanting to leave, but not knowing what to do. At that moment, I felt like God gently spoke to my heart. He said, “Erika, I have an idea. Why don’t I go in there with them and you can go home. I will stay. I won’t leave them alone.” Those words from God have stayed with me over the last three years since Hope for Kids began. Leaving children in a harsh environment was not a one time thing. It is now a regular occurrence. Each time it happens I remind myself of God’s promise (not just spoken to my heart, but also written in His Word!) that He will never leave or forsake them. He is what they need!
Hope for Kids began in my husband Matt’s heart in the fall of 2013. He was working with a children’s organization whose goal was to get an after school Bible club into every public elementary school. It is an amazing organization, but the problem (that was brought to our attention through a God-ordained trip into the inner city) is that there is an extremely large number of children that do not have the opportunity to stay after school since they rely on the bus and have no other means of transportation. Thousands of kids were unable to hear the Gospel through this method of after school clubs. Matt wanted to reach those children, starting with the ones in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. After weeks of prayer and hours and hours of the two of us talking, praying, writing, planning, we decided to launch Hope for Kids. Our mission is to provide help and hope to kids in need through physical relief, spiritual renewal, and authentic relationships. Matt describes it like this: on one side is the physical which is tangible (such as food, clothing, school supplies, birthday gifts, etc), on the other side is the spiritual which is intangible (the Gospel!). The relationship aspect is the bridge between the two sides!
We began by reaching out to families that lived in a hotel. Initially we recruited volunteers and used vans and cars. We called parents, arranged to pick up kids, and took the kids to church and AWANA. However, it quickly got chaotic. The church was neither prepared nor equipped to handle the number of kids we were bringing, and the behavioral issues were many. Something needed to change. That’s when we introduced Club Hope.
Club Hope is church for inner-city kids. We rent school buses, drive into the projects and shelters, and with parental permission in writing we take the kids to a church that allows us to use its facilities. We serve the kids a hot meal and break them up into groups by age to have the following: praise and worship time, a lesson from God’s Word, small group time for discussion and prayer, and game time! This is all run by volunteers. (At the moment, due to finances, we have this one Saturday a month. As we increase in financial support we plan to have weekly Club Hope.) In the between times, we pair up families with volunteers to reach out to them. Volunteers will take the kids out to ice cream, church, the park, dinner, the zoo, and other such activities in order to be an example of Christ to these families and to share true Hope with them- the Gospel!
Last summer we began a new part of our ministry. We brought fifteen teenagers and young adults into our home for a full week. Run as a camp, we held classes each day where we taught the students how to share the Gospel with a child; the distinctives of urban ministry; how to teach a Bible lesson, song, and memory verse; how to canvas neighborhoods and engage children in games; how to work as a team; and how to grow in their walk with God. After the training, which included many study halls and evaluations, the team was ready to go. We then spent three weeks in six different neighborhoods and shelters performing week-long Impact Clubs at each location. In just those three weeks we reached two hundred children and saw numerous salvation decisions! We immediately began follow up and now, months later, many of those children come to Club Hope and are paired with volunteers who regularly pour into them.
God is doing an incredible work in the city. Hope for Kids has about seventy-five volunteers, three staff members (who are actively trying to raise their support), an administrative assistant who donates her time and work, and more opportunities than we can say yes to! As part of the dream that Matt and I had at the beginning, our whole family is involved. Our oldest daughter, Brianna (who is married and lives out of state), is our volunteer coordinator. She makes sure each event is fully staffed and each volunteer is properly screened. Our oldest son, Cameron, is on staff raising support. He is the Director of Family Relations. He is the go-to person for all of our families. If they have a need it goes through him first. He arranges visits and pair volunteers with families. He also teaches the Bible lesson for the 4-9 age group at each Club Hope. Our seventeen-year-old daughter, Alissa, runs a girls’ group at our events. Our fifteen-year-old son, Caleb, goes to the HFK office one day a week to write to kids who are hurting, have a birthday, have been sick, or have asked for prayer. He also works with a boys’ group as a verse teacher at Club Hope. Our thirteen-year-old son, Andrew, does counseling after the Bible lesson for kids who want to know more about how they can have a personal relationship with God. Our eight-year-old daughter, Leah, and six-year-old son, Micah, join in with the city kids and befriend them, often inviting them over to our house so they can be an example to them and help point them to Jesus.
Hope for Kids is still new. We have vision and God is growing this ministry through new volunteers, resources, and countless children. One challenge we face has to do with the fact that we are faith based. Going into the projects in nice weather is easy—we just set up right outside and kids come from all over! However, when it is rainy, cold, and gets dark early we cannot have Impact Clubs outside. We have requested the use of different community centers, but are turned down once they hear that we will talk about God. We are super excited about our new idea that would take care of that issue. We are calling it Mobile Hope. Imagine a huge coach bus, with the seats removed and the inside transformed into a kid friendly meeting place! We envision mats on the floor, a huge monitor on the back door, a couple of long tables and/or benches screwed to the floor, a refrigerator (must keep those freeze pops cold!), fun lights, a sound system for kids’ praise music, and lots of love! This would give us opportunity to reach the kids right where they are. We can offer Impact Clubs, tutoring, music lessons, pizza parties, art lessons, prayer meetings, and anything else that our volunteers desire to contribute. Sadly, there was recently a shooting in a neighborhood and a young teenage girl was killed. If we had the bus we could have come by to offer grief counseling and prayer. The possibilities are endless. God alone knows how and when this can be accomplished, but we are faithful in praying and expecting that He will provide!
Those little boys that I left—not alone, but with God—back in the early days of Hope for Kids have lived through some unimaginable trauma since then. The circumstances surrounding the events were a result of sinful choices on the part of their parents. I am so thankful that God brought those children into our lives, that they heard the truth of how much God loves them and cares for them, that He doesn’t leave them ever, and that they both accepted Christ as their Savior. We gave them each their own Bible and we taught them that the Bible is truth. We have no way of knowing how their lives will turn out, if they will follow in their parent’s footsteps, or if they will choose to follow God. We rest in the fact that we were faithful to do our part and most certainly God will be faithful to do His! Hope for Kids…Hope Changes Everything. Because true Hope is Jesus.