Thursday, May 25, 2000

Church filling kids' needs

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Pinched between Interstate 75 and the railroad yard, Camp Washington is a neighborhood much of Cincinnati has forgotten.

        “People turn the other way at Hopple Street and go up to the university (of Cincinnati),” said the Rev. John Wierwille, pastor of Washington United Church of Christ on Sidney Avenue.

        Camp Washington, rich with meat packing and other industry, is one of the city's poorest residential neighborhoods. The median family income in the largely urban Appalachian community is $6,800. About a third of the neighborhood's 2,000 residents live below the federal poverty line.

A mission church
        That's where Washington United Church of Christ comes in. A mission church with 17 members, Washington receives volunteer and financial support from the other 40 congregations in the Cincinnati Assembly of United Churches of Christ, as well as from other religious groups. In turn, the church provides Camp Washington residents with free health care, emergency food and clothing, GED education and tutoring.

        Its latest addition is the Tristate's sixth Kids Cafe, a program of ConAgra food company, America's Second Harvest and the FreeStore/FoodBank that offers regular meals to children. And though it has been operating at Washington Church since October, the program will be formally dedicated this afternoon. Cincinnati City Council members will be among officials serving a meal to children beginning at 5:30 p.m.

        “Some days we have 30-40 kids. Other days it's 60-80,” said Andrew Parker, 25, assistant church pastor and Kids Cafe director. Children have received dinner on Tuesday and Thursday, which will be cut to one night a week for the summer when the church adds breakfast five or six mornings a week.

        “That's what the neighborhood said they needed,” said Pastor Wierwille, 33, who has been at the church 18 months.

Feeding the hungry
        Other Tristate Kids Cafe sites are in Covington, Dayton, Ky., Newport, Corryville and Over-the-Rhine.

        Omaha, Neb.,-based ConAgra, in conjunction with Second Harvest, plans to open another 75-100 Kids Cafes across the country within the next three years. ConAgra gave the church a $20,000 grant that it used to rebuild its kitchen. Another $50,000 from ConAgra went to the FreeStore for a truck.

        An estimated 1 in 4 children in Ohio regularly misses a meal because of lack of resources, says Second Harvest, a national network of 200 food banks that includes the FreeStore.

        Nationally, 14 million children are affected by hunger, the group says.

        “We eat family style. No food is served across a table,” Pastor Wierwille said. “It's important kids learn to share a meal.”

        Some families do eat meals together in the neighborhood, the pastor said, but many don't. Too many children lack supervision.

        “A couple of weeks ago, we had children 6, 7, 8 and 9 break in to some cars,” he said. “What are you going to do? Turn them in? We had them sweep the street.”

        Pastor Wierwille often walks around the neighborhood and talks to people.

        “Some of the kids cuss him,” said Debra Coleman, 40, the married mother of four children who lives across Sidney Avenue from the church. “He never raises his voice. He just goes on.”

        Mrs. Coleman's younger children, 7 and 8, often go to church programs.

        A few weeks ago, the church sponsored a street fair, giving << away soft drinks and food. Free health screenings were available.

        Earlier this month, the Jordan Center, a Price Hill-based, non- profit health center for the uninsured or underinsured, opened a clinic across the street from the church in one of the congregation's buildings.

        << Much of the focus at Washington Church of Christ is on children.

        The after-school tutoring program ends today. Rose Gibson, a single mother who works as a machinist, has sent her four children to the program all year.

        “It's a rough neighborhood,” said Ms. Gibson, 32, who was born in Camp Washington and joined the church after Pastor Wierwille arrived. “In the church, they have a chance.”

        Her youngest child is Kyle, 5, who is in kindergarten at Heberle Elementary in the West End.

        “I like to read and play,” Kyle said after praying and drinking milk.

        Pastor Wierwille was out of his clerical collar Wednesday afternoon. He helped to move several chests of drawers into Ms. Gibson's home.

        He stopped at the church's red front doors. He said he used to have to paint them every week because youths would paint graffiti on them. “Fifty times,” he said.

        Then, last year, the mother of a neighborhood gang member died of an overdose. The church buried her. The pastor preached the truth: Drugs kill.

        Since the funeral, the church has gone untouched by vandals.


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