Gangs were trying to take over the cities. Young black men were killing each other weekly. In fact, an entire city block in Little Rock held white crosses, one for each young man killed violently…a grizzly reminder of the battle for the streets. Simultaneously, the Holy Spirit began to stir many people in many churches. A conviction to be part of the solution was taking root. Finally, a few people from Fellowship Bible Church began to assemble representatives from many churches as they studied the demographics of all areas of both cities. They looked at the high crime areas, the low education areas, the poverty areas, etc. After several months of these monthly meetings, they were asked to go apart and not speak to each other…to pray instead, asking God WHERE to begin ministry. When they reconvened, every single one said they believed the Lord was directing them to Eastgate Terrace in North Little Rock. This location had the worst numbers in both North Little Rock and Little Rock. (When things get difficult for us, we remember that we are in the right place…the place God showed us!)
Taking baby steps into that location, those who volunteered found a community that didn’t trust them. STEP volunteers built a playground at Pine Elementary, which was across the street from Eastgate and available for the kids after school. A Reading Readiness program for pre-kindergarten students was held. The Encourager Program was assembled for the students at Pine for the school year! At last, we were meeting with the youth. The Encourager Program showed us that this ministry needs to be one-on-one. God was showing us everything one step at a time! We were figuring out the HOW of ministry!
However, when we entered Eastgate in the Spring to sign kids up to participate in the Summer Program, no one opened their doors. We were white people with clipboards and looked like we were going to shut something off! No doors were opened to us at all! As we sadly walked toward our cars, we ran into Tameka, one of our fifth grade students from Pine. We asked her to take us to her friends and she did! Seven kids and Tameka formed the very first Summer Program for STEP! We now had the WHO!!! Those eight students formed our first mentoring program. There was still much to learn!
Mentor/mentee bonding happened occasionally and slowly. We were so puzzled at how the kids thought about things. However, faithfulness won out and the program continued and more volunteers joined us. A few years after the ministry began, a North Little Rock educator gave us a book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. We were so amazed to learn that the Eastgate kids were living successfully by the hidden rules of poverty, while most of the volunteers were living by the hidden rules of the middle class or even the wealthy class. These rules are called “hidden” because they are not written down. Realizing this very important information made the volunteers more informed about the possible thought processes going on in their mentees. Finally, God had given STEP the tool that helped eliminate expectations and assumptions they might have had about the kids. The mentors began to understand that it was their job to simply LOVE a child and let God CHANGE them.
Many hundreds of people have walked through STEP Ministry as volunteers…having loved a child for a season…having learned a lot about their own thinking regarding the poor…having walked away changed! Others are still enjoying that now-adult relationship with their mentee. Many children have walked through these 23 years, having had a choice they never knew. Some have surpassed all our expectations by graduating from college…getting married…having children IN wedlock! Others have succumbed to the violence into which they were born…some dying…some imprisoned. And many others are in-between those extremes.
Today STEP Ministries serves children at our Eastgate site. Approximately 80 children have mentors who meet with them weekly. There are also 25 schools in three school districts that have an Encourager Program! Over 300 Encouragers tutor over 600 students every week.
Today we get visits from some of the “old-timers.” Most of them express that the days in STEP were extremely important to them…some of their best days! Sitting across from some of these 30-somethings is so gratifying! God has touched their lives through the precious people who sacrificed some hours many years ago to speak eternity into their lives.
In hindsight, it is clear that the Lord led us all to Eastgate, to those special children at that particular time. He gave us the clear format with which to build a frame around these ordained relationships. He sent us willing volunteers from different churches to work together with Him in the lives of these children. To God be the glory!!!