Global Health and Ministry with the Poor: ZIP Code Connection transforms lives

When Wendy Bergeron gained custody of six of her grandchildren, now ages 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, the Clarksville, Texas, woman faced enormous challenges.

Born homeless, grandson Drayven had lived with his siblings in various shelters before he was removed from his parents’ care. He entered prekindergarten at Cheatham Elementary Head Start in 2017.

“He was very difficult to manage,” Bergeron recalled. “He was unable to do the simplest forms of classroom routines without kicking, screaming, hitting, throwing things and completely disrupting and endangering others. The school suggested that we have him evaluated for his behavioral mental stability.”

The family was referred to a community health agency, where they met Adrianna “Ms. A” Kirkadoff. She did Drayven’s intake, gave his grandmother “lots of useful information” but admitted that because of the boy’s age, the only alternative was putting him on medication, which Bergeron declined.

Adrianna Kirkindoff, who is a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern, works with children at Cheatham Elementary School, Clarksville Middle School and Clarksville High School.

“Things continued to go horribly at school,” Bergeron said. “Then we were told a counselor was coming to the school, and we were encouraged to meet with her. Imagine our delight when it was Ms. A! Drayven really liked her, and now he was going to see her once a week.” The more Kirkadoff worked alongside Drayven’s teachers, the more he came out of his shell.

“She continued to work with him over the summer,” his grandmother said. “It is as if he has done a complete 180 degrees. If you met him today, you’d never know about his terrorizing his teachers and scaring his fellow students last year. Although “he still has a lot of things going on,” he has learned coping skills and knows that if he needs her, Kirkadoff is still there.

The counselor saw “his potential and believed in him from our very first meeting,” Bergeron said. “He gave her a hard run, too, He wasn’t easy, even if he liked you.”

Making a huge difference for the Bergeron family was “Improving the Behavioral Health of Children in Poverty,” an initiative of the ZIP Code Connection, related to the United Methodist North Texas Annual Conference. Funded by a one-year, $50,000 grant from the Global Health Unit of the General Board of Global Ministries, the program was the brainchild of Bishop Michael McKee.

“Our work,” said Dr. Olusimbo Ige, M.D., executive director of Global Health, “has been to support all United Methodist churches and conferences to engage in health ministries wherever they are.”

Putting faith into action

In June 2013, McKee launched the ZIP Code Project to try to eradicate poverty by 2025 in two ZIP Codes – 75215 in south Dallas and 75246, a rural area in northeast Texas.

The conference adopted the United Methodist focus on engaging in ministry with the poor, believing they need to walk beside neighbors, recognizing and celebrating the assets everyone contributes. Their desired outcome was to restore those areas to vibrant, thriving communities recognized as good places to live, work, learn, do business, raise children and practice one’s faith.

Clarksville, home to Bergeron and her family, is a community of 3,200. The school district has roughly 500 students, predominantly low-come and minority children and youth. Many enroll without the developmental or behavioral preparation for full participation in learning activities, and those gaps widen over time. Often, students have experienced little personal attention, and many have attachment issues and poor self‐control.

Because school funding depends largely on student enrollment, the district could only afford to hire one counselor for the entire pre‐K through grade 12 population, and because of other duties, that person only spent 20 percent of the time counseling.

McKee and his colleagues believed that providing a second qualified professional counselor to the school district would significantly improve the likelihood of academic success for the children experiencing problems, their peers in the classroom and their teachers. That person’s primary responsibility would be to address students’ behavioral and mental health needs.

Their instinct proved on target. Drayven’s younger sister recently started school, and Kirkadoff is making major strides with her as well. “Gabriyella,” Bergeron said, “is headstrong and physically aggressive at times. Without the help we’ve received, these children wouldn’t be where they are – thriving, learning and living happy, structured lives.”

Kirkadoff also works with the children’s three older siblings.

“The kids come home the days they see Ms. A, happy and telling me about what they work on,” Bergeron said. “I see improvements already. The positive impact she has made on this family (cannot) be expressed enough. I’m sure the school is as grateful as we are.

“These young ones have benefited greatly from her caring about them. She has helped their Nanna and Pappaw to understand things on their level and much, much more.”

Retired from United Methodist Communications, Barbara Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor.