Nikkee Byard asked groups of 100 students at a time at Hutchinson High School if they had ever felt like they were bullied, faced poverty, had addictions in their families or had family members who were incarcerated to step over a line in a recent exercise.
“Almost every kid in the room crossed over the line, nearly every single time,” Byard, Hutchinson High School site coordinator for Salthawk Community Support, recently told members of Hutchinson Trinity United Methodist Church.
“Every one of them had been touched by something very painful,” Byard said of students at the school, where three-fourths of the 1,500 students live below the poverty level.
But, backed by Trinity UMC funding and volunteers, Byard is trying to stem that tide.
A former counselor for the Communities in Schools program, before it lost funding, Byard said the Hutchinson High-Trinity partnership began last school year as Salthawk Community Support, named for the HHS mascot. It provides financial support for students in need of shoes, coats, personal items and food, as well as emotional and educational support from mentors.
“Trinity has been a supporter from the get-go,” Byard said after her presentation at the church. “Trinity was the one who reached out to the other churches and civic organizations and said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ They’ve really been amazing.”
Now, 10 churches and five to six civic organizations are behind the Salthawk program.
Registered as a nonprofit, Trinity supplies funding through its Matthew 25 Salthawk program, named for the verse that includes the parable of the sheep and goats: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Byard said that she contacts the church when she hears of a need, and it administers funds. A display in the church’s narthex is a drop-off point for physical donations for the students.
Poverty in Hutchinson, Byard said, has “gotten really bad within the last year.”
“We seem to be a community that’s taken a spiral down quite quickly compared to other places,” she said. Not only are taxes higher than in most of the state, she said, but several major employers have left the city.
The community does have a strong shelter and drug rehabilitation program, she said, which has been a mixed blessing.
“Other communities looked at that as, ‘Wow, Hutch has resources,’” Byard said, “So they’ve been dropping off their patients.”
Faye Summervill has been church administrator for Hutchinson Trinity for the past 26 years, and said she’s never seen such drive behind a mission as she has for Matthew 25 Salthawk.
“This is one mission for us that has risen to the top,” Summervill said. “This is one of our most exciting missions.
“Trinity has always been involved in the community because it’s been important to us, but this is one where the church has jumped in with both feet,” she added.
When church members heard that Byard’s position might be eliminated because of budget cuts, members spearheaded a fund drive that raised $50,000 in 45 days to keep her and the program going.
“(We) said, ‘We’ve got to save this ministry,’” Summervill said. “It was extremely important to us and the other churches in working with her that we not let her go.”
Summervill said church believed in the mission of the group, and believed in Byard.
“The difference that she’s making at Hutchinson High School is huge,” she said. “If Nikkee wasn’t at the high school, these kids would not be helped. They would not have a safe place to go to.
“She makes a difference. The kids that she works with stay in school and graduate,” Summervill added. “Otherwise, they would not have.”
Likewise, Summervill said, it has brought out the best in Trinity congregation members who donate their time to serve as mentors, both helping with schoolwork and giving the teenagers someone with whom to talk.
“We’re finding these relationships are huge,” she said. “A lot of these kids don’t have any adult leadership in their lives. The mentors step in and serve in that role. It makes a difference.”
The relationships continued beyond the first school year and into the summer, she said, when mentors and students met twice a week for meals at the Salvation Army in Hutchinson.
The church has applied for an educational partnership grant from the Great Plains Conference, Summervill said, to help continue the program.
She hopes the program will expand to the entire public school system.
“We would love to have a Nikkee Byard in the middle school and a Nikkee Byard in the elementary schools,” Summervill said. “That’s the five-year plan.”
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.