In 2002 a pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church had a vision about the church helping a school in need.  He mentioned his idea to the congregation during a church service, asking attendants if they could help identify a school in the Amphitheatre School District that could use their help.  

A church member and administrative assistant at E.C. Nash Elementary School spoke out, “I have a school for you.”

Later that year, a partnership began between St. Mark’s UMC and E.C. Nash Elementary School, and the Nash Neighbors program was born.  The program’s mission: “Realizing school resources are inequitable; we exist to help the Nash community realize others care by providing intervention and support.”

E.C. Nash Elementary is located in the southern-most region of the Amphitheatre School District, and is in one of Tucson’s lowest socio-economic areas with more than 95 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunches.  For most of the students at Nash, the breakfast or lunch they eat at school is the only meal they might have while school is in session.  

“After months of pre-planning, the Snak Pak program was launched in September 2005, thanks primarily to a $5,000 grant from The Stocker Foundation,” said Sani Heilman, the communications and outreach coordinator for the church. “Additional support was received early on from Fry’s and the 4th-graders of Copper Creek Elementary School.”   

The Snak Pak program offered through Nash Neighbors provides students with a plastic bag filled with an apple and orange, can of tuna or chicken and single serve items such as cereal, crackers, granola bars, and peanut butter to supplement healthy eating over the weekend.

“When we first started the Snak Pak program we had 60 kids receiving bags, today we have 120,” said Carol Cecilia, chairperson for Nash Neighbors.  “The need has doubled.  If you ask any teacher or staff member at Nash how many kids need Snak Paks they’d say ‘all of them.”

In cooperation with the Tucson Community Food Bank, different committees or groups of volunteers from St. Mark’s work in monthly shifts to pick up food from the food bank, pack bags for the Snak Pak program and then deliver the bags to Nash on Thursday so that students can have them on Friday before they go home for the weekend.  The food bank provides healthy food guidelines for the Snak Paks.

In November of 2008, the Nash Neighbors program was selected by Tucson Electric Power’s “Grants That Make a Difference” to receive $8,200 for the Snak Pak program.

Tucson Community Food Bank covers the cost of 40 Snak Paks, and the grant from Tucson Electric Power funds the difference.  

Heilman estimates that money from the TEP grant will cover the first semester of the coming school year.  

“In order to continue the Snak Pak program in 2013 we definitely need to find new grants or other funding sources,” said Heilman.  

Without a grant source or business to make a donation, the future of how many students can continue to benefit from the Snak Pak program is uncertain.  Members of St. Mark’s UMC will do underwriting for grants and ask if anyone in the community knows of a grant the church can apply for to call the main office at 297-2062.

Besides Snak Paks, the church does even more for the local school district.

In the past, the church has provided students with new backpacks and supplies to start off the school year without worry of not having supplies, but this year volunteers took a new approach and supplied teachers with full boxes of basic supplies after querying teachers to find out what their classrooms and students needed.  Empty backpacks were made available to any students who needed one.

“The school is still in need of supplies,” said Heilman.  Items needed are wide rule loose leaf paper, folders with or without prongs, beginner “fat” pencils, dry-erase markers, glue sticks/glue bottles, scissors and highlighters.  

The computer lab at Nash has been upgraded with funds provided by the Nash Neighbors printer cartridge recycling program.  St. Mark’s sends the empty cartridges to Empties4Cash receiving $2 per cartridge, on average.  Money from this program purchased a new software program so that the teacher in the computer lab can monitor students activity at the computer bays and make sure they are staying focused and on track with assignments.  

School supply donations and empty ink cartridges can be dropped off at St. Mark’s UMC located at 1431 West Magee Road in Tucson.

The On-site Volunteers program was the first effort St. Mark’s developed with Nash, providing teachers and staff with support wherever it was needed.  Volunteers from St. Mark’s tutor and read to children, assist teachers in the classroom and staff in the office, or work in the cafeteria.  This on-campus volunteer program continues to be a foundation of the St. Mark’s partnership with Nash.  New volunteers are welcome.  However, all new volunteers must be fingerprinted and cleared by the Amphitheatre School District before beginning work in the classroom or office.   

The Nash Neighbors partnership extends beyond the students at Nash.  As stated on the website, “St. Mark’s believes that the morale and welfare of Nash teachers is an essential ingredient for classroom success”.  The Teacher Appreciation program was created to remind the staff how much they are appreciated.  In the past all teachers have been awarded with fruit baskets, or coffee mugs filled with goodies, staff has received Valentine’s Day treats and at the close of the school year a week of estimation games, scavenger hunts, and other activities allow teachers chances to be rewarded with other small gifts.  Through this program the teachers’ lounge was updated with new pictures, tablecloths, coffee makers and a restroom all in an effort to make the lounge more inviting and comfortable.  Most recently a “Thank you Breakfast” for the teachers was served during the week of Thanksgiving.

“On average teachers spend about $2,000 annually on supplies, tissues, hand sanitizers and more to supplement their classrooms,” said Cecelia.  “They also do a lot of projects with the students in the classroom because otherwise the children wouldn’t have an opportunity to do them at home.”

In the spirit of public health and safety, St. Mark’s UMC’s Health and Wholeness Ministry is partnering with E. C. Nash Elementary School to offer a free health fair on Saturday, April 14th from 9 a.m. to noon.  The school is located at 515 Kelso Street.  Free health screenings will be offered by the University of Arizona School of Pharmacology students.  Local social service and healthcare providers will offer educational materials.  The event is open to anyone in the community in the area of the school.  Materials and screenings will be available in English and Spanish.

The next big project volunteers for Nash Neighbors will work on is Play-School-at-Home.  The program encourages students to continue learning during the summer months.  St. Mark’s hopes to provide six hundred and fifty Nash students with bags filled with school supplies and books to help them keep up their skills.  Volunteers who can sew are always needed for this recurring project, and they need sturdy fabric and thread donations.  It takes approximately a half yard of fabric to make each bag.  At the very end of the school the bags of supplies are given to the children.

For more information about Nash Neighbors and how to volunteer visit the website or call the church at 297-2062.

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