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Have elementary school students forgotten how to go to school in person? Will they have the discipline? The self-control to remain seated? Respect for teachers?

Well, yes, if they are among the 37 fortunate East-of-Bayshore students to join Bayshore Christian Ministries’ KidSmart Bridge summer program!

As many schools prepare for a transition back to in-person classes, the staff and volunteers in KidSmart Bridge see an opportunity to serve kids that have undergone almost a year of online learning. For many 1st to 4th grade children that attend KidSmart Bridge, they have been learning at home and away from other kids for long enough that skills such as socializing with other students and extended focus in classrooms need refreshing.

KidSmart Bridge, an all day, in-person academic program which runs for six weeks from June 8th to August 5th, is a great way to prepare students to re-enter the classroom environment and to reinsert themselves at their grade level after a year of interrupted schooling.

KidSmart Bridge divides its programming into morning and afternoon components: the morning is reserved for academic review of the past year and review of the upcoming year’s curriculum. The afternoon is designed to offer hands-on fun like interactive science activities and arts and crafts.

This year, with the help of Innoverge Workshops, students learned about marine engineering and materials sustainability, physics concepts, propulsion, fuel, and the ethics of space exploration. They created models of the moon phases using Oreo cookies, and built a weight-loading bridge using toothpicks and gummies. Besides understanding and applying physics concepts they’ve learnt in their morning academic classrooms they’re also reinforcing good collaborative and social skills with other kids through group work.

"If they can resist consuming too many of their building blocks -- bite shaped Oreo-moons or gummies disproportionately missing a kid’s favorite flavor—then they can build something together to win prizes," laughs a volunteer.

Besides new partners like Innoverge, KidSmart Bridge is also comprised of mainstays — staff and volunteers that have dedicated many years to serving kids in East Palo Alto and deriving joy every year as they lift up new groups of children. Diana Liggs, for example, has been a staff member with KidSmart for 15 years. For her, the ability to impart self-esteem and confidence to do well in school has motivated her to innovate every year:

“Based on the needs that I see in the children I add new components to Bridge every year. For example, we found out that the reason some of the kids were unable to finish their tests online this year was because they didn’t know how to use the keyboard. This simple knowledge gap was really impacting the students’ learning and their self-esteem. I added a typing component to address that issue.

“Last year, there was a fifth grader who was writing an essay to get into a school but did not know how to formulate her ideas. So, I added a writing component to the program.”

Diana is able to shape the program flexibly around the students’ most immediate needs because she has kept in close contact with their teachers in schools. “I want to reinforce what teachers are teaching; I send them emails to introduce myself and communicate that their student attends my after school or summer program. I say, ‘if there’s anything I need to work on with them, please let me know. We have the time and the volunteers.’”

Diana is especially and continuously thankful for the volunteers that have been working with her in KidSmart Bridge for many years. She emphasizes that the volunteers she works with have been amazing and she waits with bated breath every year for them to say ‘yes.’ Some are relatively new, but a few have been with KidSmart Bridge for 8-9 years.

One such volunteer is Roland, who found out about Bayshore Christian Ministries and KidSmart through Menlo Church’s website. He describes his constancy and dedication to the kids in a matter-of-fact way: “When I started serving in this ministry, it just seemed to work out.”

Roland is attentive to the new learning difficulties that this past year has presented to the kids: “A lot of the kids lost ground from being at home during the pandemic. It is satisfying to see them figure it out. I love that moment when it comes back to them and it clicks.”

Both Diana and Roland display the spirit of KidSmart Bridge as a program that aims to develop children’s academics wholistically; by always seeking out the particular needs and gaps in each student’s life and accommodating specific areas of need. The propensity to be on the lookout is apparent in other volunteers too, as they move from table to table during the bridge-building afternoon component to offer advice, answer questions, and mediate disagreements whenever they come up. With their help, KidSmart Bridge’s students will be better equipped to move past turbulent times and to return to a new year of learning.

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BCM has impacted my life in so many quintessential ways. In my sophomore year, I went through a really difficult time due to family related challenges. Not only was I having a hard time balancing my academic life and personal life, but I began to doubt my abilities to be truly independent in my future academics as well as my future in adulthood.

However, I began to change my frame of mind and perspective by participating in the after-school program, LiT and connecting with the staff at BCM during my time on campus as well as in my down time waiting for my mom in the lobby, building my communication skills by engaging in friendly banter, small talk and the occasional deep conversation.

I've never been one to gravitate towards such a tight-knit community, now I could not possibly see myself moving forward without the BCM community backing me up and supporting me, now and in my future endeavors.

During my time at LiT, I was able to open up about the loss of my cousin Jessica who was extremely academically driven, before I hadn’t been able to relive the moments leading up to her death with anyone. The trust we had built in the LiT community helped guide me spiritually as well as to utilize her memory to fuel my academic journey and passion for medicine to make her proud and ensure that the health of others is the focus of my future career.

Being a student at Oxford Academy (the school that shares BCM’s building) has given me the opportunity to constantly be around the BCM building, gladly offering my help to anyone who needed it. During my freshman year, I volunteered to help Ed’s first-grade students practice their reading skills and support them with their homework. I have also volunteered for Waniya, translating for a student who didn't speak English and even work for her in the summer for Create Academy, which was an amazing opportunity and experience. I was able to really connect with the students and brighten up their Summer just a little bit more.

I have also been participating in LiT for about three years now and I have received so much support with my journey with my spirituality, my academics, and my life in general.

I will forever be indebted for the kindness shown to my mom and I as we both struggled with the sudden absence of my father. Living in a house of eight, each individually coping in their own way, my mom and I were able to reciprocate the kindness shown to us at LiT and at BCM in general and bring it home to help heal as a family, unifying us, and in turn them showing me immense support on my path to college. Now with the certainty of the path I'm taking to UC Berkeley, which I'm extremely excited to share with my BCM family, still lies my trepidation to our financial situation, the root being my mom's sudden shift to head of household and taking on the emotional and financial burden of the house.

With that being said, my emotional resilience and positive outlook I can accredit to BCM and the outstanding staff in their encouraging and loving environment. I thank the BCM team for the continuous love and support.

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Boom Pop Park has managed to stay below the radar most of the time, and when the residents of Westside do notice it, it’s because of the occasional Zumba class held there. The park has become especially quiet since the pandemic started. However, in mid-June 2021, the grounds were vibrant with the sound of scuffling feet and excited shrieks. It’s Vacation Bible School season for Bayshore Christian Ministries!

On the far side of the park, tables were set for VBS attendees to have their meals at the end of the two hours. In the middle, an open space for maximum mobility during game time. And lastly, on the other end, a shaded spot under the trees where the students sit, facing the VBS volunteer this year — Dan — and his teaching doodad, the Preach-O-Matic.

Dan, with his cap and his tendency to lock eyes with the students as he strides across the front, looks like a sports coach prepping the team for their next game. Behind him, his Preach-O-Matic props up a board with circles and figures on it — the lines drawn in such a way that he could be explaining a field play-by-play. The Preach-O-Matic itself is as tall as he is; a wooden structure with big sturdy wheels on the back end, and two shelves to hold Dan’s visual aids.

With the distinct air of passion and intensity one expects from pre-game prep, Dan is introducing his attentive attendees to a fundamental aspect of the gospel, the fact that God forgives. He wraps up a point and invites questions. A hand shoots upwards. The question:

“How do you know you’re going to heaven?”

As he begins to answer, Dan eases himself down to sit on the step closest to the front row of his audience. He puts his elbows on his knees, laces his fingers, and leans forward: “You know if you trust in God. And you can use your own words, you don’t need to use my words… You can tell God you are sorry for your sins, you can ask Him to come into your life and come into your heart.”

Another hand goes up: “Are we still going to have this program in heaven?”

After his session has ended, Dan explains, “I have worked quite a lot with students. When it comes these topics, there is the serious side, and I try to be really careful in the way I express it. I can’t water it down, but I have to make it accessible for the students. I want to really impress on them that it is OKAY to ask questions, any question. Questions that they had, that maybe never got answered. One other group I teach is young adults, and a lot of them feel like they’ve tried church and it didn’t work because they didn’t get answers to many of their questions. It’s heartbreaking because there are good answers to all their questions! Ask, and you will get answers!”

On this front, Dan feels that the soft heartedness that makes people more willing to ask questions is characteristic of the students in East Palo Alto. “Folks in neighborhoods like East Palo Alto are more familiar with difficult times. Sometimes you get students in desperate situations; they feel like they have no hope, and they need hope! Children need to see hope. It's amazing — children who you think have a toughness, have a tremendous openness to the gospel.”

Carmen, another leader at VBS this year, can attest to this openness that she sees in the students. Carmen is an alumni of BCM’s VBS herself, and has done it all — from volunteering, to now serving on staff. She was part of the team who extended an open invite to the students in the Westside community, knocking on doors and introducing VBS. As a result, a lot of the students at Boom Pop Park knew each other beforehand. Some of them even grew up together.

Carmen talks about how God has been working in VBS, in the way these students are able to immediately apply the lessons they’ve learned to their own lives: “Sometimes children’s way of speaking to each other, the way they act around each other… especially if they grew up together in the same apartment… might not always be the nicest. One of our VBS themes this week is ‘How God Comforts’. It sticks to them. I was walking with them after, and I see one of the students say something not so nice to another. Then, one of them interrupted and said, God doesn’t like that. He comforts.”

She also talks about how after hearing about sharing the gospel, some of the students brought along two new friends to VBS the next day. She is amazed at how quick they’ve put what they learned into application. She is also enamored with how they engage with the material, and the questions they ask. “I love the way they think. They find solutions for everything, and they even suggest ideas to me when I talk about my day with them.”

Other staff and volunteers can attest to the particular perceptiveness that they appreciate in the students. As they packed up the food and the props at the end of the day, they traded their favorite quotes and questions from VBS that week. Here’s one for you to think on:

“When good things happen, does that mean we have good luck?”

If you want to find out the answer, maybe join the next VBS!

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