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Middle schoolers can explore interests in Opportunity Zone

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A middle school student tries her hand at artistic photography during an Opportunity Zone photography class.
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A middle school student takes a scenic break while hiking during Opportunity Zone’s Hiking and Kayaking session earlier this summer.

By LUANN MASON - For The Shelbyville News

Opportunity Zone wants to expand. Community residents are the key to making it happen.

“We’re looking for ways to grow this program, so we need more programs and more (adult) leaders,” said Mike Whitfield, project director and 19-year church member.

“Anyone wanting to share their passion (maybe it’s crocheting, piano, painting, drawing, household repairs) and are willing to do that with middle schoolers in small group settings (on average five to six in a group) can contact us by calling the church, 317-398-8224.”

Will Mitchell, one of the eight program leaders, said, “We need things we can recruit enthusiastic adults for and have it be of interest to kids.”

First Presbyterian Church launched the no cost program open to students in grades six, seven and eight earlier this year to give youth the opportunity to learn something new like the art of stained glass, cooking, guitar, boxing, gardening, hiking, theatrical acting, kayaking, fly fishing, and photography.

Since February, close to 50 local youth have participated in either a portion of the sessions or in all three of the six-week sessions of hands-on learning in the areas mentioned, according to Whitfield.

Opportunity Zone originated from a community ministry grant opportunity offered each year to invited churches through the Center for Congregations, which is funded by Lilly, according to Mitchell.

“We began training for the grant in 2016, attending sessions in Indianapolis on how to discover community needs and figure out which to address in the grant application,” he said.

During the discovery process, Whitfield said the program steering committee interviewed and listened to “a large number of people in the community”, including youth, and one theme captured their focus: middle school youth.

“We were sold on this when we met with Melissa O’Conner, director of the Shelby County Youth Assistance Program. She needed activities for these kids to do,” he said. “This age group has fewer opportunities. They so often do not have transportation to get to activities. They’re not old enough for jobs. They’re beginning to shape themselves to see where they fit in the world.”

Through discussions, and written in the grant application, the group found that many youth in the middle school group needed more opportunities to explore interests, participate in group activities, develop friendships and meaningful adult relationships, and explore possibilities for their futures.

These observations and discoveries formed three program goals: help improve the lives of middle school-aged youth who have limited resources by offering them opportunities to explore interests; build enthusiasm and passion for ministry in the congregation by involving as many people as possible to follow Christ’s example to serve and love others, to build intergenerational relationships, and to positively affect the community’s future by collaborating efforts with others outside of First Presbyterian Church.

“We projected $26,000 for this ministry and received that amount,” said Mitchell, who serves as treasurer. One of the grant requirements was that the church provide a portion of funds for administering the program. The church board members agreed the church’s portion would come from its endowment, which included funds from the recent sale of some church property. The grant application included information that “(church) bylaws require us to use 10 percent of any new endowment funds for outreach ministry. We have therefore set aside $30,000 to be used as seed money for this ministry.”

Funding has been used to purchase cameras for use in the Photography sessions, guitars, boxing equipment and gloves, all cooking essentials including upgrades to the church kitchen and all other items needed for programming, Mitchell said.

He and Whitfield stressed that the focus of programming is on areas of interest to the youth. “I want them to do something they are proud of and enjoy doing,” Whitfield said.

“Our goal is not to try to bring them to church or faith,” he said. “The goal is to assist them to find a good future for themselves.”

“It’s about making choices that make a difference in their lives,” Mitchell said.

Opportunity Zone is open to all sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Experiences offered for this six-week session include:

n Cooking, Tuesdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

n Animal Adventures, Thursdays, 4:30 to 6 p.m.

n Boxing, Tuesdays, 6 to 7 p.m. in the upstairs gym at First Methodist Church, 34 W. Washington St.

n Guitar, Tuesdays, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

n Photography, Tuesdays, 5 to 6:30 p.m.

n Fitness Club, Mondays, 7 to 8 p.m. and Thursdays, 6 to 7 p.m.

Sign-up and additional information is available Sunday, during a kick-off supper from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the basement fellowship hall of First Presbyterian Church, 124 W. Broadway St. Parents, guardians and siblings may attend. For more information call the church office, 317-398-8224.

All classes start next week and continue weekly through Oct. 26. A free celebration dinner is scheduled on Oct. 28 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The second fall session will begin in early November.