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School children fill halls of aging, near century old congregation

In a near-century-old church where the congregation’s average age is about 70, children from the East Central neighborhood gather in the basement to play.

Twice a week in the school year and a dozen times each month in the summer, school-age children come to Grace Lutheran Church to share a meal, spend time with other youth and talk to adults who want to make a difference in the children’s lives.

“When everything else goes wrong in your life, you can come to Project SPEAR,” said William Shelton, a 16-year-old who lives next door to the church.

Project SPEAR—Spiritual Program for Education, Arts and Recreation—is an after-school and summer program for youth ages four to 17.  Since it was established in 1969 by a college student, Sharon Rector, and the Rev. Al Ingebritsen, the pastor then, Project SPEAR has reached thousands of low-income youth.

The Nyborgs prepare and serve meals.

“The program lets them know there are people who care about them,” said Sheryl Kruger, volunteer coordinator and a longtime member of Grace Lutheran.  “The children and youth make friends.  They learn about boundaries and making choices, and they learn how to take care of themselves.”

Most of the youth in Project SPEAR are children of the working poor families south of East Sprague Ave. between the “cat walk,” the neighborhood name for the Hamilton St. overpass, and the Altamont exit of Interstate 90.

While their parents struggle to make ends meet by working two or more jobs, children often have little to do after school, said Marilee Campbell, a neighbor who has three jobs including being Project SPEAR administrator.

Because parents overwork, some children suffer from poor nutrition, delinquency and other problems, said Marilee.  With no one home to help with homework, play and talk to them, the children also risk being influenced by gangs and other negative elements in the neighborhood, she said.

The goal is to provide youth a safe environment where they can learn and play, said Marilee.

“Many families have tried to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps and have done okay,” Marilee wrote in a brochure about Project SPEAR, “but, many other families don’t even have boots with straps to pull up.”

That’s where Project SPEAR can help, Sheryl said.

For nearly four decades, children who have nowhere else to go have come to Grace Lutheran’s basement—a large social hall filled with round dining tables and chairs.  Its walls are decorated with colorful drawings, paintings and art projects children have created over the years.

In addition to giving them a place to spend time after school and summers, Project SPEAR ensures that some children receive extra food to take home for their families, as well as soap, shampoo and other sundries that can’t be purchased with food stamps.

“It’s a great place to hang out,” said 15-year-old Kimberly Friddle.  “They also feed us and help our families.”

Up to 30 youth show up for two hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the school year.  The littlest ones spend the afternoon playing with toys, coloring with crayons or making up games.  Teens usually gather around a table, where they do homework or talk to each other about school, friendships and other events in their lives.  Often, older youth help supervise the younger ones with arts-and-crafts projects.

In the summers, they meet from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  In addition to activities at the church, youth also go on field trips to neighborhood parks, downtown Spokane and other places.  They also spend the first two weeks of August at Camp Lutherhaven on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

For many children, Project SPEAR is their first introduction to faith, Sheryl said.

While some choose not to go to church, “seeds are planted,” she said.  “You never know how you touch their lives.”

Every child is welcome, she said, as long as their parents or guardians fill out a registration form and provide emergency contact information.

Many youth who recently gathered at Grace Lutheran raved about camping trips and outings they’ve experienced through Project SPEAR.

For some, it’s a good way to connect with other young people and make lasting friendships.

Project SPEAR
Allie and her son

“We’re really close here,” said 17-year-old Allie Rauch.  “Everyone gets along.”

Allie, a Running Start student at Spokane Community College, has been coming to Project SPEAR since she was seven.  Her two younger sisters, 16-year-old Dani and 15-year-old Chuckie, also are longtime participants.  Allie’s nine-month-old son, Chandler, is the youngest participant.  When he was born, Allie received support from her peers at the after-school program and from longtime members of Grace Lutheran. 

The church prayed for Allie and her infant, Sheryl said, and provided diapers, blankets and other newborn necessities.

In addition to Sheryl, a member of Grace Lutheran for 33 years, others at the church volunteer.

Lenny Kruger, Sheryl’s brother-in-law and a lifelong member, helps prepare and clean up the basement.  Rose Carpino, who joined Grace Lutheran 14 years ago, often helps with programs.

Jim and Carolee Nyborg, who started worshipping at Grace 10 years ago, are cooks.  They come every week with bags full of groceries.  While youth play outside or in the basement, they spend the afternoon in the church’s kitchen, preparing nutritious foods for the children.  Most evenings, they serve meals of quesadillas, pizza or ham with mashed potatoes.

Besides helping the needy in their neighborhood, church members see Project SPEAR as a way to bring the youth and the older generation together.

“Many come and go.  There’s much transition in the neighborhood,” said Jim, “but things are changing.  We’re seeing more children and youth at church.”

Older members appreciate hearing children’s laughter and voices in the basement, Sheryl said.

Although it’s been around 39 years, finding the funds to keep Project SPEAR afloat is always a challenge, said organizers.

The program has received support from other churches, including those in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod.

Community organizations such as Miracle Bonus Mothers of Multiples Club have donated clothing, toys, books and food. 

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a national nonprofit organization that sponsors outreach programs, has provided grants.

In recent years, Project SPEAR has received money from the sale of chocolate “indulgences” at The Kaufer Company Religious Gifts and Supplies.

Members of St. Ann’s Catholic Church, a few blocks away, have organized sales of these chocolates, first to feed people in the neighborhood and now to support Lutheran programs.

Fourteen years ago, Tom Westbrook, a longtime member of St. Ann’s, came up with the idea of selling indulgences.  He contracted with Spokandy to make and wrap chocolates, and asked Ed Sinclair, owner of the Kaufer Co., to sell them.

In recent years, the Rev. Martin Wells, bishop of ELCA’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod, has directed the funds received from sales to Project SPEAR.

Sheryl, a preschool teacher who started volunteering for Project SPEAR five years ago, hopes to provide youth with more opportunities, bringing guest speakers and taking children on field trips to expand their horizons.

“Some children have lived in Spokane all their lives, but have never been to Riverfront Park,” she said.  “They’re good kids just in rough situations.  We’re here to support them and let them know someone cares.”

For information, call 475-5470.