Conference takes on 'child care deserts'


Key Points

  • The Texas Conference just planted its fifth child care center, this one in Linden, Texas, in partnership with Linden United Methodist Church.
  • The first such center opened two years ago, and four more are expected to open by year’s end.
  • The centers are placed in underserved areas, with the goal of advancing literacy, health and discipleship.

Planting churches is all well and good. But sometimes there’s a need for crop rotation.

The Texas Conference has, for the past two years, been planting child care centers in underserved areas, in partnership with local United Methodist churches.

“Where there are child care deserts, the church and other community partners are essential to the welfare and education of our young people and their future,” said Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones.

Jones and the Rev. Jill Daniel, director of the conference’s We Love All God’s Children initiative, joined in the Oct. 18 ribbon-cutting for the latest such center, in Linden, Texas, in the upper northeast part of the state.

When the Methodist Children’s Center opened that day, it became not only a new ministry of Linden United Methodist Church, but also the only licensed facility of its kind in Linden, a county seat town of 2,000.

Quality child care is “just something that hasn’t existed here in any serious capacity in many years,” said Garrett Williams, a Linden resident, parent and center board member.

Daniel is the key Texas Conference staffer for the child care centers. Though based in the Houston area now, she grew up through third grade in Linden, and the ribbon-cutting proved emotional for her.

But she kept the tears at bay and had no trouble elaborating what the conference is up to with the Linden center and others.

“Our mission is to change the trajectory of the lives of underserved children and their families through a holistic ministry that includes discipleship, early literacy and health,” Daniel said.

A toddlers’ class at the new Methodist Children’s Center in Linden, Texas, takes a lunch break on Oct. 18, the center’s opening day. The Texas Conference has worked with local United Methodist churches to open five child care centers in underserved areas. The Linden center, done in partnership with Linden United Methodist Church, is the latest. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.
A toddlers’ class at the new Methodist Children’s Center in Linden, Texas, takes a lunch break on Oct. 18, the center’s opening day. The Texas Conference has worked with local United Methodist churches to open five child care centers in underserved areas. The Linden center, done in partnership with Linden United Methodist Church, is the latest. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

The Houston-based Texas Conference is among the largest U.S. annual conferences, with 635 congregations spread across nine districts in east Texas.

When Jones became the conference’s bishop in 2016, he began to look for a fresh mission focus. He settled on children, in part because of a conversation with Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“He said that if a child doesn’t read at grade level by third grade, the chances of living a life of poverty or incarceration just multiply,” Jones recalled.

The Texas Conference has in Jones’ time developed the We Love All God’s Children initiative, with a focus on literacy, health and Christian formation.

Jones turned to Daniel for leadership: She had been a teacher and Head Start center planter before becoming an ordained United Methodist elder.

“Part of my job is assigning preachers to their place of service,” Jones told the crowd at the Linden ribbon-cutting. “And realizing I had a child care expert who might come on the staff and help churches like Linden (United Methodist) do this well, with the right expertise, is one of the smartest things I’ve done in the last five years.”

The We Love All God’s Children effort is more than child care centers. But they are at the heart of it.

The conference planted the first in Kirbyville, Texas, two years ago. Linden’s is the fifth, and four more are expected to open by year’s end.

Daniel noted that lack of quality child care in many rural and urban parts of Texas was a crisis before the pandemic, and is worse now.

“A substantial percentage of child care centers either closed or never reopened,” she said.

Under the We Love All God’s Children model, the conference identifies an area of particular need, then tries to enlist a local United Methodist church to partner in planting a child care center.

It’s a big decision. The center becomes a ministry of the church, not an independent nonprofit. The conference is able to cover start-up costs and pay staff salaries for the first few months, thanks to support from the Permanent Endowment Fund of Moody Memorial Methodist Church in Galveston, Texas. But the partner church pretty much takes things from there.

Long-term financial sustainability is a good bet, given income from tuition and from tuition subsidies, provided for many low-income families by the Texas Workforce Commission. But there’s no guarantee.

“Some of the churches we approach say, ‘No thank you,’” Jones said.

Linden United Methodist was willing, but church members didn’t feel their building could handle a child care center.

“We were using every room,” said the Rev. Kelly Krone, pastor.

That obstacle was removed when the local school district made a building available. The church decided to move ahead, organizing a board for the new center, and digging into other preparations, including having a men’s Sunday school class paint the building’s interior.

“We have sweat equity in this,” Krone said.

The Rev. Jill Daniel offers encouragement to Ariel Hunt, 5, at the new Methodist Children’s Center in Linden, Texas. Daniel is director of the Texas Conference’s We Love All God’s Children initiative, which is planting child care centers in underserved areas. The one in Linden opened on Oct. 18. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.
The Rev. Jill Daniel offers encouragement to Ariel Hunt, 5, at the new Methodist Children’s Center in Linden, Texas. Daniel is director of the Texas Conference’s We Love All God’s Children initiative, which is planting child care centers in underserved areas. The one in Linden opened on Oct. 18. Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.

Linden is a historic town, not least as the growing-up place for blues legend T-Bone Walker and the Eagles’ Don Henley. But it’s barely held its own in population in recent years.

Mayor Lynn Reynolds and other Linden leaders say the Methodist Children’s Center may help hold and attract residents, along with nurturing children.

“This is a huge program of the Methodist Church, and there’s a huge benefit,” said John Viard, a Southwest Airlines senior manager and Linden resident who joined the center’s board.

The center is providing care for infants through fifth-graders, with the older kids coming for an after-school program.

The ribbon-cutting drew the mayor, other dignitaries and a regional TV news crew. Opening day saw 30 children enrolled, supervised by four staff members, as well as volunteers. Licensed capacity is 51, and the open slots are expected to go fast.

The center is chock-full of early childhood education materials (provided by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation), which staff members can use to help kids begin to learn to read and do math. Houston Methodist Hospital will have a community health worker based there, Daniel said.

While key goals are to help the children flourish in health and education, there’s a spiritual focus, too.

“We want to be unapologetically Christian,” Jones said. “Discipleship is one of the factors. And, quite frankly, I hope (the center) is a pipeline for children to get involved in the church.”

Years ago, Daniel was herself a small girl attending Linden United Methodist. She recalls being in Sunday school, thrilling to the story of Jesus welcoming children to come to him and feeling called to serve children one day as well.

That she would grow up to be an educator, then a pastor, then a pastor appointed to plant child care centers in underserved areas, including her old hometown — well, that strikes Daniel as a providential journey.

“It’s full circle, and to be able to share a piece of that with the folks in Linden really has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests


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