At the Central Conference Annual Meeting at Covenant Harbor Camp this past weekend, Ronda Ooms, our Director of Community Outreach, was given the 2019 Compassion, Mercy, and Justice Award for the Central Conference. Each year this award is given to a person in our conference who has demonstrated committed, faithful service in the areas of compassion, mercy, or justice. Recognizing that many of us may not know the full story of the work Ronda and her team have been doing, I thought it would be good to share with you just part of why Ronda deserved this award.
At the time I arrived on staff in August 2007, Ronda was serving as ECC's Director of Children's Ministry. Within a few weeks of my arrival, however, Ronda began to talk to me about a vision she had to extend her love for children to the underserved children of our city.
She made an appointment for us to talk with the principal of Miller Elementary School and that conversation became the mustard seed of God’s Kingdom that has sprouted to become a large tree with branches sturdy enough for the birds to perch in. Ronda merely wanted to begin a partnership with a school that was doing poorly in our city and was “under the gun” in terms of potential drastic action by the government. How could we, as ECC, partner with Miller School? The initial suggestion was small: could we rally volunteers to volunteer one hour each day of the week, to supervise the children at lunchtime and recess, and give the teachers a break? Ronda rallied a group of volunteers and that ministry began in the fall of 2007.
Since that time, our initial involvement with Miller has branched off into several more compassion and mercy initiatives at the school, and beyond. In January of the next year (2008), Ronda discovered that many of the children from Miller often made their way down to what is now known as Bauer Community Center for an after school program. A good number of those children were not picked up until 7:30 or 8:00 each evening, without the benefit of an evening meal. Ronda mobilized a team of volunteers to cook one warm meal a week during the school year. It was a tremendous success, beginning with about 50-60 people initially, including some of the families in the area. Though it was initially intended only to run during school months, the Thursday evening Bauer meal has been running consecutively for 11 years, summers included, with the highest attendance numbers topping 150 or more. Just over a year ago, the staff at the Bauer Community Center honored our ECC volunteers with a special meal and presentation, celebrating that since 2008, when the ministry began, we have served over 50,000 meals!
Ronda’s Miller School initiatives have opened up further opportunities. ECC folks donate funds every year to assist Miller families in need with the school dress code. They volunteer in the library and in the classrooms tutoring younger children, host yearly Christmas outreach initiatives, host teacher appreciation days, staff and lead the yearly back-to-school carnival, pack backpacks with free food every weekend, and serve a monthly meal to teachers and families for special family nights. The monthly family meals serve anywhere from 200-400 people each month and have fostered greater participation from the families in the school and in training opportunities to help their kids succeed at home, as well.
In addition to all of this, since 2014, Ronda has led a team of people who teach and disciple young children in a program known as Afterschool JAM (for Jesus And Me) where children are taught about the love of God using the Orange curriculum we use at ECC on Sunday mornings. This past year they saw older children who had been a part of the program in the past come back to assist and be mentored as leaders.
A few years ago, a new principal, with whom ECC continued to serve, asked to speak to our congregation on a Sunday morning. Once Miller School began to get better state grades and had truly turned around academically, the principal shared with our congregation that whenever people ask how it was accomplished, he always gave ECC credit for our commitment and many hours of service to the families and faculty of Miller.
Ronda’s passion and willingness to learn and grow in how best to reach out to communities in need (through Christian Community Development training and other opportunities), her tireless work to obtain funding for new initiatives, and her willingness to do all the administrative work in her partnerships with local food pantries, and government agencies and initiatives have been crucial to the success of ECC’s ministries in the Miller-Bauer neighborhood.
In a more recent addition to the ministry, through Ronda’s leadership, we have begun to partner with Habitat for Humanity in helping two of the single-parent families we’ve been working with to find housing. Through Habitat and with the work of several of Ronda’s ECC team and money Ronda helped raise, we are helping these families rebuild their credit, grow in necessary skills, and move forward in qualifying for Habitat Houses, themselves.
In 2013, after much prayer and dreaming, ECC made the pivotal and controversial decision to move our Vacation Bible School from our campus to Miller School. In doing so, our VBS attendance went from over 600 children to about 150, but we feel we are reaching a population who would otherwise not have such an opportunity.
There is more to this story than space allows, but these examples more than illustrate Ronda’s heart for others and her commitment to the work of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice in our community. ECC is known in our community for the work we do in Miller and Bauer, and I am proud and pleased every time someone in our community mentions it to me. I like to say that I had nothing to do it with it, other than to bless it and encourage Ronda to follow her passion and God’s call.
Several years ago, after many years of serving the Children of ECC, Ronda’s gifts were officially recognized by our congregation and she transitioned into her current role as ECC’s very first Director of Community Outreach. We celebrate what God has done and continues to do through Ronda and the teams she has so faithfully stewarded over for God’s glory and her neighbor’s good.