MONROE — It’s a Tuesday night at Monroe Covenant Church.
The chairs usually arranged for a Sunday service are stacked in one corner of the room, except for a few that form a semi-circle around the stage.
Elementary-aged children, seated in chairs or on the ground, are reading alongside volunteers who range from middle and high school students to retirees.
After reading it’s time for games. The kids crowd the stage and cheer as two stack red solo cups as fast as they can.
Then, it’s time for singing and dancing, followed by a lesson in faith.
The sometimes-calm, often-raucous, atmosphere is the scene of Kidz Club, a twice-a-week after school program run by Take the Next Step, a faith-based nonprofit in Monroe.
But Kidz Club isn’t Take the Next Step’s only service. The nonprofit has programs for the homeless, low-income families and teen moms, among others.
“If you’re in a pickle, just come in and we’ll find someone to help you,” said Sarah Lunstrum, who does community outreach.
Another program is the nonprofit’s cold-weather shelter, located at New Hope Fellowship.
The shelter, which opened for the first time in mid-November, is available when temperatures are expected to drop below freezing.
About two-thirds of the guests are over the age of 60, Lunstrum said.
Rising rents, loss of a spouse and medical bills are often causes of homelessness that aren’t talked about, she said.
“It’s not just drug addiction,” she said.
The nonprofit also runs a support group for teen moms called Growing Together. The group meets twice a month, usually one meeting for lessons on finances and life skills and another focused on fun activities, like a recent trip to a pumpkin patch.
Back at Kidz Club, most of the kids come from Frank Wagner Elementary, where nearly 70% of students were eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches in 2018 based on family income, according to state data.
Students bus from school to the church, where they get snacks and get help with school work in small groups.
Chloe St. Germain started as an intern for Kidz Club when she was in high school. Since graduating from Kirkland-based Northwest University, she’s returned to lead the program as its director.
She isn’t the only returner, though.
Most student volunteers are former Kidz Club participants, Lunstrum said.
Lunstrum said one of the program’s main goals is to give kids meaningful relationships with adults. That’s one aspect of building the “sources of strength” that prepare children for adulthood, she said.
“A lot of kids have said no one had ever given them the opportunity to be a leader,” Lunstrum said. “It’s crazy what kids will do when you give them a leadership opportunity. They just take it and rise to it.”
Frank Wagner Elementary also has a high percentage of Latino students and addressing cultural and language barriers was sometimes difficult, Take the Next Step founder Donna Olson said.
That’s where Yesica Carmel comes in.
She joined the nonprofit in January. By July, Carmel had worked with more than 170 Spanish-speaking families.
“It especially helped with the parents,” Carmel said.
Together, Carmel and Take the Next Step have connected Latino families with medical, legal and financial resources they previously may not have had access to.
Immigration is the most requested topic, Lunstrum said.
As the children gather their belongs and wait for their parents, a different set of volunteers prepares a free community dinner.
In half an hour, the room will be filled with hungry people and families, plus plenty of food.
The meals are donated by a rotating cast of partners and average attendance is about 70, but leftovers are given for most to take home.
“Our volunteers really do make the magic happen,” Lunstrum said.
Past meals include fried chicken, potatoes and other sides from the Rotary and ham and deviled eggs from Ben Franklin Crafts and Frames.
“We have a very generous community,” Lunstrum said. “Our guests really appreciate the home-cooked meals.”
In December, the nonprofit begins its year-end donation campaign. Two families have signed up to match all donations during the month up to $30,000.
The campaign is how Take the Next Step earns most of its income, Lunstrum said.
To donate, visit Take the Next Step’s website.
How to help:
Take the Next Step accepts volunteers for their drop-in center, Kidz Club, Growing Together and community dinners.
Money and food donations are also needed.
More info: (360) 794-1022; https://www.ttns.org/