> Houston, TX

Jeff and MarcAt the age of 12, after bouncing from place to place in Houston’s depressed Third Ward, Jarvis found himself living in a local Houston homeless shelter with the rest of his family. That summer, he landed at the nearby City of Refuge Church’s VBS program. But this wasn’t your traditional Vacation Bible School. This was “Vocational Beginners School” (VoBS) -- a hybrid of work, study, and play that teaches kids entrepreneurship, a solid work ethic, and financial responsibility.

The brainchild of City of Refuge’s innovative pastor, Rufus Smith, VoBS targets a critical age group--young adolescents of that “in-between” age where they are too old for daycare and too young for summer jobs. These frequently unsupervised kids, Smith knew, experienced a boredom, curiosity, and excessive summertime free time that could be a recipe for trouble. VoBS proved an effective response: 24 kids attended that first summer, and since then the program has served over 103. It’s also being replicated by a church in Memphis and the Smith continues to get inquiries about VoBS from youth ministers looking for ways to forge new ground.

Through VoBS, participating youth like Jarvis work each week in business ventures ranging from lawn care to car washes and are given monetary vouchers based on their work performance, punctuality, attitude, and behavior. These monetary vouchers are redeemed at the end of the summer for between a $300 to $600 dollar value. The vouchers can then be used to purchase school clothes and supplies or to pay for special youth mission trips, or they can be saved for further educational endeavors. In addition to work experience and financial literacy training, the youth also spend 12 hours a week in classes aimed at teaching the basic principles of American citizenship. Church staff hope these classes will instill a traditional understanding of citizenship into the students that will grow them into effective neighbors and members of their community. Motivated both by a desire to learn and the financial incentives involved in the program, Jarvis established himself as a leader his first summer. A teacher recalls seeing him come alive in class: “We were talking about the Bill of Rights, and the balance of freedom and responsibility that citizens have,” said Shannon Wright, a Wellesley graduate who has helped develop the program’s curriculum and teaches the American history and citizenship class. “We were talking about the rights you have when you’re being questioned by the police, and he sat straight up. ‘Wait, they can’t just search you for no reason? They have to have a warrant?’ It really caught his attention, this idea that the law should protect you from abuses of power.” Now, Shannon says, Jarvis will sometimes sidle up at church and ask about the new Supreme Court nominee or the war in Iraq. She tells him he should run for office someday.

Jarvis stayed in VoBS for the next three summers. It was obvious he had taken the lessons to heart, said Youth Pastor and VoBS Director Dan Walmer, when Jarvis showed up at his door asking to borrow his lawn mower so he could mow lawns to make money. “I let him do it, but I charged him to use my lawn mower so he’d see it was really cheaper to invest in his own and not have to give me a cut of his profit,” said Walmer. “He’s really an entrepreneur.”

Now a junior at Forest Brook High School, Jarvis has excelled in the classroom as well as in extracurricular activities. Even after moving to another Houston neighborhood nearly an hour from City of Refuge Church, Jarvis continues to be an active part of the congregation and has recruited others from the community into the church. He has been a part of the youth choir, attended a number of missions trips, and will sit on the youth council of the church beginning in the spring of 2006.


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