Education

Turlock school chaplains bring care, support for students

Turlock School Chaplains A Safe Adult To Talk To

Trained volunteer retirees step up to listen, support, smile with kids, in place in case of crisis as school chaplains a Turlock elementary schools. (Nan Austin/naustin@modbee.com)
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Trained volunteer retirees step up to listen, support, smile with kids, in place in case of crisis as school chaplains a Turlock elementary schools. (Nan Austin/naustin@modbee.com)

Bad things happen to good people, even very young, good people. Helping kids find their way past life’s tragedies and missteps is where seasoned volunteers in Turlock have found a second career, making a difference for grade schoolers.

About 30 retirees from different walks of life volunteer, mostly during lunch recess, organizing games, helping kids talk through playground spats or working one on one with children trying to cope. They lead assemblies and generally provide what organizers call a positive presence.

When a crisis comes, the familiar faces and wide shoulders of Turlock’s school chaplains stand ready.

The group is an offshoot of Turlock Chaplaincy, the ordained chaplains helping first responders debrief after a crisis. Members saw a need to help children come to grips with trauma, too.

“We would get calls from schools – we did our best, but it was not our wheelhouse,” said Tom Sperry. They did not know school procedures, and the children did not know them, said Sperry, who now coordinates the school chaplaincy program serving eight Turlock elementary schools.

“The troubles kids are going through these days. We bring another pair of eyes and ears, a caring heart, a safe place to go,” he said.

The faith is the why, why the chaplains are there. But it’s not the what. It’s not what we do.

David Williams, Turlock Chaplaincy

Very few of the school volunteers are ordained chaplains, but the group decided to keep the name.

“We want to be true to who we are,” said David Williams, Turlock Chaplaincy executive director. “We do not do any preaching. The faith is the why, why the chaplains are there. But it’s not the what. It’s not what we do.”

If children ask a question about faith, chaplains can answer, he said, stressing that they must always be sensitive to the many faiths on the playground.

“We serve everybody,” Williams said. “We are faith-based, and we don’t want to run from that. It’s our strength. They love God, so they love children. They want to help people who are hurting.”

Two years ago, Turlock Unified voted to partner – at no cost – with Turlock Chaplaincy to provide crisis intervention and support to children when principals called. At the time, trustees said there were tremendous needs and this would provide another avenue of support.

“The concern was all the things going on nationally, the shootings,” Sperry said. “The goal of the chaplaincy is to meet people’s needs in crisis.”

Crisis, however, covers a wider swath for children, Sperry soon found, and the chaplains work with Jessica’s House for children coping with a death or terminal illness, and the Treehouse Club for children of broken homes. Bullying, violence in the home, divorce, depression, addictions – kids have to cope with them all, he said.

“We don’t have to go looking for conversations,” he said wryly.

We bring another pair of eyes and ears, a caring heart, a safe place to go.

Tom Sperry, school chaplains coordinator

Two weeks after the pact was finalized, two children were killed by a drunken driver, and school chaplains were called to a school to help classmates work through the shock. School lockdowns, police apprehensions seen from the school, even tornadoes have brought other calls.

To be effective in a crisis, however, kids had to learn to trust them. “We had to be a part of the (school) culture, so in case the need did arise, we’d be in place,” Sperry said.

“You couldn’t pay for something like this. There wouldn’t be a budget large enough,” Williams said, adding that chaplains respond whenever and wherever they are needed.

Volunteer retirees, easy to spot in bright orange shirts, head to schools three or four days a week. They find the lonely kid on the blacktop, teach kids who don’t have access to club sports the rules of the games, listen to fledgling readers read or tutor kids in math.

“It has been a really positive thing on our campus,” said Laura Long, assistant principal at Wakefield Elementary in southwest Turlock, where two-thirds of the students are learning English and all are low-income.

“They build relationships, provide on-the-spot guidance,” Long said. Chaplains will also go to homes where there is a need, refer families to resources or give them coping strategies after a tragedy.

“It gives the children an outlet, rather than to expect them to come to school and just go on as if nothing has happened,” she said.

I get to just pay attention to kids. I’m able to give these students the gift of time.

Marcos Rivera, school chaplain

Out on the playground, retired California Highway Patrol Officer Marcos Rivera is talking to a cluster of young girls, his tall frame bent over to hear as agitated fingers point. After a few minutes, the argument resolves, but no one leaves until he is sure the apology offered has been accepted.

“It took a little bit for kids to get to know us,” he said. “Now it’s hard to keep up with all the kids who just want attention. I try to slow down, and be fully present. You never know what’s going on in their day.”

He realized he was making a difference, Rivera said, “when kids started asking me how my day’s going – my day, my week, my weekend.” After months of asking kids how they were doing, they had internalized the message.

“I knew we were onto something when they were thinking outside of themselves. I knew we were hitting home runs,” he said.

Rivera said he considers school chaplain work a privilege – “I get to just pay attention to kids. I’m able to give these students the gift of time.”

That is exactly what the district wanted to see, said Gil Ogden, Turlock Unified head of student services.

“They’re giving positive support, somebody to check in with and talk to,” he said. The backgrounds of all volunteers have been checked and all are trained by the district in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Ogden said the goal is to have chaplains dropping by all elementary schools and junior highs in Turlock next year.

For information on the school chaplains program, visit turlockchaplaincy.org; click on school chaplaincy. To donate toys to Wakefield school, contact Assistant Principal Laura Long at 209-667-0895.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

Turlock Chaplaincy fun run

The group’s only fundraiser of the year is Saturday.

What: Turlock Chaplaincy Fun Run

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where: Race begins and ends at Denair Park, 850 E. Main St., Turlock

Info: Preregistered cost is $10 for the 1 mile and $25 for the 5K or 10K races. Each costs $5 more the day of the race. Register at www.active.com or email Jennifer Hall at jhall614@yahoo.com. Race put on with help from Off Center Thrift & Gift.

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