When passion meets passion

Written by the Rev. Dawne Sarchet, this story is part of our THRIVING for 10 Years series celebrating WeTHRIVE!’s 10thanniversary. As the former pastor of Reading-Lockland Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dawne embraced the WeTHRIVE! initiative. She and her small congregation worked tirelessly to improve the health and wellbeing of Lockland’s children and families. Now retired and residing in St. Bernard, we look forward to having Rev. Dawne on the new St. Bernard WeTHRIVE! team.

Called to Lockland

Sitting in the parking lot of Reading-Lockland Presbyterian Church in 2008, the Rev. Dawne E. Sarchet had a heavy heart. The congregation was calling her to become their installed pastor. She had just driven through the community with a lifelong member. What she saw was a broken community, rich in memories but dealing with unhealthy decay.

Most of the congregation had lived in Lockland since their youth and knew the community when it was a thriving, vibrant town. They had two charges for their new pastor – how could they become engaged in local mission and what could they do with all of their empty rooms?

Seeking direction

Both the congregation and the new pastor were passionate about wanting to make a difference, whatever the cost. They all prayed for direction. Although they had numerous ideas, they needed clear demographics and fact-based knowledge of what was needed in the community.

In 2009, when it was announced that a member of Hamilton County Public Health would be coming to a committee meeting of Lockland Village Council, the pastor leapt at the opportunity. From Karen Schwamberger, she learned that the CDC had targeted Lockland, Lincoln Heights, and Woodlawn as three of the unhealthiest areas in the nation, with high rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer. They were extending a huge grant with the intention of making a difference in healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco use prevention.

The pastor and the congregation agreed to become involved at the ground level of what became joyfully known as “WeTHRIVE!” She and Ms. Shirley Mesley came to every meeting and had their eyes opened to the needs of all three communities. They also saw that changes needed to be made at the church as well. Reading-Lockland Presbyterian Church adopted the WeTHRIVE! Faith-Based Resolution to show their commitment to health.

Adopting the WeTHRIVE! message

One major decision was to have healthy food options available at every church gathering – every meal, every meeting. At first, there was resistance because members loved bringing their favorite cakes, pies, and cookies to gatherings. The pastor knew that during times of change it was better to add then to subtract, so members were permitted to still bring what they wanted to share, but at every gathering there were healthy options – fruit and vegetables trays. Water replaced soft drinks.

Those simple changes were transforming. Knowing that many were widowed and on a fixed income, the pastor always provided a fruit and vegetable tray for Bible Studies and meetings.  She watched with joy as those became a significant place and time for healthy eating. Eyes and smiles grew brighter! Within several years, young children would bypass the trays of chocolate brownies and fill their plates with fruits and vegetables! Some parents would offer quizzical comments about how their children preferred fruit and vegetables to sweets. WeTHRIVE!

Reaching out to youth

The most extraordinary opportunity for outreach began in February of 2010 when the congregation was asked by Whole Again to become a site for a Summer Food and Educational Enrichment Program. The congregation and pastor responded with eagerness because this was the answer to their prayer for guidance. The opportunity coincided perfectly with the parameters of WeTHRIVE! Children from ages three through 18 would have the opportunity for two nutritional meals each day, an academic program, and physical activity – all free to their families.

The WeTHRIVE! leadership team from Hamilton County Public Health embraced the new venture with more than just words of encouragement. Passion met passion! They recommended and provided training for the Summer Program leadership through Catch Kids Club and provided all of the accompanying materials, such as balls, jump ropes, etc. The pastor never felt alone because they were a phone call away for support, encouragement, and direction.

The church set no limits on who could attend, so children came from Lockland, Reading, Arlington Heights, Lincoln Heights, and the surrounding communities. The program grew from 50 children in the summer of 2010 to more than 165 children in 2015-17. The large empty rooms of Reading-Lockland Presbyterian Church were now shining and chiming with the faces and voices of children and youth receiving reading, writing, math, character education, art, music appreciation, and nutrition (through The Ohio State Extension’s Ms. Peggy Cebelak). Pharmacy students came and offered programs on drug awareness.

Although professional teachers and paraprofessionals were hired by the church, the same older members of the congregation who committed to WeTHRIVE! were the volunteers – seven of them volunteered every single day of every summer. The pastor was committed to volunteerism as well and refused any extra salary for directing the program.

Taking the steps

Everyone was willing to not only be agents of change but also take “steps” toward change within the congregation. Adults, youth and children were strongly encouraged to take the steps instead of the elevator. Beginning each summer, the pastor would watch the children drag up the steps from the basement to the top level where math and art were taught. By the middle of the summer, they just ascended without thought and by the end they were running up those same steps. They frequently won fitness competitions at the end of the summer – competitors and judges assumed the children had practiced. The pastor just smiled because she knew that it was those steps.

A very special partnership

WeTHRIVE! and Hamilton County Public Health never abandoned the congregation during these years of change. Mary Ellen Kramer frequently checked in to see if there were unmet needs. When the old basketball hoop broke after the second summer, along with the village of Lockland, they provided a new hoop and backboard. One former health educator, Mike Tomes, built a small children’s garden at the side of the building so the preschoolers could have the joy of watching things grow and trying brand new tastes. He must have added a special children’s blessing to the garden because those small children with their little sprinkling cans watered the garden every day and still the vegetables thrived.

Ballet and cooking

The congregation continued to expand their outreach to children, always within the original parameters of the WeTHRIVE! initiative. They offered Princesses Ballet, a free program through City Gospel Mission. La Soupe provided a free, wonderfully nutritious meal for the children and families to enjoy after ballet practice. They also added cooking classes and food for meals through the Cincinnati Gives a Crock Program. Again, all free to families.

Passion met passion

All of this was initiated by the passion of a small congregation wanting to make a difference and the passion of the leadership of Hamilton County Public’s Health’s We THRIVE! providing guidance and networking. The community was strengthened, lasting relationships were forged, and strong partnerships with the neighboring communities were launched. Passion met passion! We became family!

–The Rev. Dawne E. Sarchet

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