As followers of Christ, many of us wrestle with how we, and the congregations we lead, can make the most impact in helping those in need, especially those entrenched in a cycle of poverty. We take seriously the mandate given to us in Matthew 25:40, “And the King will say, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” but we may wonder how we can most effectively invest our time and resources to live this out.
Poverty is pervasive in communities and entire countries around the world and, while there are many ways we can and do give through the provision of money, food, clothing, and the like, the way to bring about lasting change begins with education. In fact, education of children and youth, coupled with strategic after-school programming, is critical in breaking the cycle of poverty.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” As the leader of an international child sponsorship organization called PathLight International, I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly and would add that if education is the weapon, then an after-school program is the guiding hand directing the blow that ends global poverty.
Impoverished children struggle with multiple challenges such as food insecurity, poor housing, limited resources and tenuous parental and governmental support. Education is critical, but alone is insufficient to unlock their freedom from poverty. Children in these circumstances need additional programming to nurture their development and provide additional support through graduation.
Education coupled with faith-centered after-school programming empowers children to break free from poverty and reach their God-given potential.
So, how can we best identify opportunities to support programs that are making this sort of long-lasting impact? Here are three steps to consider, based on PathLight’s model.
STEP 1 • Does the program provide sufficient access?
Impoverished children first need access to education. Access should include tuition, supplies, tutoring, and transportation if proximity is a challenge. A 2013 study of an international sponsorship program very similar in design to PathLight’s found “large and statistically significant positive impacts from child sponsorship on years of completed schooling, primary, secondary and tertiary school completion, and on the probability and quality of adult employment.”
However, providing access to education is only part of the solution. Far too many well-meaning organizations stop here, and thus do not go far enough to see lasting impact.
STEP 2 • Does the program provide sufficient Christian mentoring?
The same study referenced above noted something else that is highly significant. Critically, the researchers found that what distinguished this program design from typical student sponsorship models is “an intensive after-school program that emphasizes their spiritual, physical, and socioemotional development.”
The Bible says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1).” Children who are merely educated can still become adult tyrants. Therefore, providing sufficient Christian mentoring is critical.
After-school mentoring programs give the students the potential to discover true freedom from poverty. This should include discipleship and character formation. PathLight uses a mentoring model we call “See, Do, Reflect and Improve.” The “See” shows the students strengths, while the “Do” has them apply the learning. The “Reflect” review is done by a mentor and a cohort of peers giving feedback on the “Do.” The “Improve” is where the student adjusts and repeats the cycle for continuous growth. This model leads to transformation. Providing sufficient Christian mentoring is a critical component of breaking the cycle of generational poverty, but there is a third step.
STEP 3 • Does the program provide sufficient transformation?
Ideally, a program that is making significant impact provides specific opportunities for transformation to take place in the lives of students. For example, students may be able to assume specific leadership roles such as, managing community service projects. Or perhaps they are able to lead in various ways at large societal gatherings or offer devotions to groups of their peers.
Students may also be given specific coaching on careers, interviewing skills, and job readiness. When opportunity for trial and error growth is included in a child’s education program, transformation happens. Graduation is one measure of the success of educating a child. However, it is the application of learning which transforms students into servant leaders and well-rounded adults who build the capacity for ultimately ending poverty.
As you consider how to invest time and resources to help those who are impoverished, consider that taking steps that provide sufficient education plus mentoring and transformational experiences will produce well balanced, fully functioning employable adults. When education is coupled with robust, thoughtful, faith-centered programming children are empowered to break free from poverty and reach their God-given potential.
Rev. Dr. Roger Dermody is the CEO for PathLight International, a U.S.-based Christian non-profit organization that provides access to quality education to students in Belize, one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Learn more about PathLight International and its sponsorship, teacher training, and community partner programs at www.PathLight.org.