“I don’t know if we will see the kids in a church in my lifetime. But I am hopeful we have planted some seeds of faith,” said Carol Lingeman, a member of the United Methodist Church in Ethan, South Dakota, and volunteer at the Sonshine club.
The Sonshine Club is an after-school program for students in pre-school through fourth grade that happens once a month at the United Methodist Churches in Alexandria and Ethan, South Dakota.
“We need to reach out to families. We have very few kids in our congregation,” said Charlene Bainbridge. “When Pastor Jordon (Louks) was here, he encouraged us to try this.”
In 2019, Rev. Jordan Louks inspired a team of volunteers to offer an opportunity for families with young children to come to the church. After brainstorming and planning, Alexandria UMC started the Sonshine Club. The name is framed for Jesus, the son of God, shining the light of love for all.
It was a success. Pastor Jordan invited Ethan UMC to give it a try. Once a month, on Wednesday, a team of volunteers meets the students at each of the elementary schools at the end of the school day. They walk to the church for a snack, a lesson, games, and a craft.
“We heard it went well in Alexandria and thought we would give it a try,” said Scott Tillberg, one of the volunteers at Ethan UMC. “The kids love it.”
It is a five-minute, two or three block walk from the school to the church in both communities. Once 40-50 children arrive at the churches, there is a prayer, and everyone sits for a snack.
“It gets a little noisy, and they move around a lot, but it is a lot of fun to see so many kids at the church,” said Mary Tillberg, a member of Ethan UMC and volunteer for Sonshine Club.
The students gather for music after the snack. Pastor Tara Bush, Ethan UMC, starts with music. She selects videos with actions that coordinate with the lesson and get the kids moving.
After music, the students are divided into three groups and then rotate through three stations—a Bible lesson, games, and crafts.
The Bible lesson is selected and led by the pastor. At Ethan UMC, the Bible lesson was Exodus 7-14, The Ten Plagues of Egypt.
“Do you remember Moses? He was helping the people of Egypt,” Pastor Tara shared with the students. “Moses went to the Pharaoh and asked him to 'let my people go'. The Pharoah said ‘no.’ So God brought plagues.”
In the craft activity, students created a design of the people in Egypt and the ten plagues.
“I connect the craft to the lesson. Sometimes I order things, and other times I grab things that are at the store, or I have on hand for the craft,” said Mary Tillberg. “They really put themselves into it and are proud of what they make."
Carol Lingeman leads games with Rebecca Chupp. “Getting them up and moving is our goal. It is a way for them to have some fun and be together with a group at church,” said Lingeman. “I wish they would all come to church. I am not sure they will, but I am glad they are here.”
The buzz that fills the churches continues until 5 p.m. When asked why they come to Sonshine Club, here is what some of the children said:
“I come every month. It’s awesome. I wouldn’t miss it.”
“It’s fun. It isn’t my church. I don’t care.”
“I like the food, the crafts, the games. I like it all.”
“I say, Holy Moses! Why not come?”
Several of the volunteers are grandparents. They find joy in connecting with the children and their families and planting the seeds to build God’s Kingdom.
“I am exhausted when I go home,” said Charlene. “It is so great to see this. Some of my grandchildren come. I just hope they all get the message they are loved.”
Here is a gallery of photos from the Sonshine Club: