School's in session at Broadmoor UMC

August 31, 2016
Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge knows what it means to fulfill the Louisiana Conference’s “vision and preferred future” by “engaging in local communities in significant ways.” Especially if the phrase goes on to read, “in significant and highly unique ways.”

As of Wednesday of last week, grades 5-12 of Runnels School have been holding classes on Broadmoor UMC’s campus. The private school that has served the Baton Rouge community for 51 years was devastated during recent historic flooding in the Greater Baton Rouge area.

Across its entire campus, Runnels School’s facilities took on four feet of flood water, said Dana Schlotterer, assistant principal for the suburban school.
Upon hearing the news that the school was inundated, Schlotterer worried about the situation on “multiple levels.” “First, I thought, where will the school hold classes—and what was the best and safest decision for the students? Then, because I am in charge of college counseling, I really got concerned for our seniors as they enter their final year of highschool. And on a personal level, I worried for my own children who are in 8th and 9th grades at Runnels. Where would my kids be attending school?”

Then, a miracle happened.

Nena Kelfstrom, a member of Broadmoor UMC and a drama teacher for Runnels, started a conversation with the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson, the church’s senior pastor. The initial discussion was about Nena’s idea of holding some upcoming theater productions in the church’s facilities since the school was flooded.

From that conversation with Wilkinson, whose wife teaches fifth grade Reading at Runnels and whose two children are students at the school, Broadmoor UMC would not only be hosting theater productions, but would serve as the temporary site for the school’s middle and upper grades.

The students are currently gathering for classes in the church’s entire adult education building and in the top floor of children’s building. The church gymnasium is also being used by students and faculty, who have affectionately dubbed the temporary setup at Broadmoor UMC as “Runnels West.”

Rita Haik, vice principal at Runnels, said she is grateful that the environment has been kept “as familiar as possible” for the students. “Parents are so grateful that their kids were able to start school at all,” said Haik, adding that many schools were still not in session due to flooded buildings.

Haik, who assumed her current role with the school says she feels “baptized in the river” with the rocky start to this school session, but emphasizes that parents and students are “very happy to be back together as a Runnels family. Broadmoor UMC has given us our school back.”

“We went into this with the thought, how can we say ‘yes’ to  this?,” said Rev. Wilkinson, who said there is a natural “ethos connection” between the school’s mission and the teachings of John Wesley.

Runnels focuses on excellence in education, but above all, stresses showing kindness to others. This “ethos” resonates with one of Rev. Wilkinson's favorite quotes of John Wesley who, when asked what he preached to the people flocking to the early Methodist movement, replied, "I preach the religion of love; the law of kindness."

Michael Cockrell, Broadmoor’s church administrator, is “overwhelmed” by the way that the congregation has responded to their young guests. “I’ve never been so proud of our folks. This reminds me of their all-out response to Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago,” he said.

Like many other area churches, and churches across the connection, Broadmoor UMC has been active with flood response, assembling cleaning buckets and housing a headquarters for Early Response Teams in the church’s scout hut. “But this response, generously giving a home to a local school, it’s been remarkable,” said Wilkinson. 

Katie Montgomery Mears, a member of St. Luke’s UMC in Houston and a student at Perkins School of Theology, grew up at Broadmoor, said Wilkinson. “Perhaps Katie’s reaction to this ministry says it all. When she recently came home for a visit, and discovered  that her home church was hosting the school she attended, she told me that it just touched something inside. She couldn’t believe that the church and the school that she loves so much were working together in this meaningful way.”

The faculty of Runnels School have been through a lot in the wake of this devastating event. Some faculty are living in flooded out homes. Adam Guidry, IT director for the school, unwittingly became a part of the “Cajun Navy,” ultimately rescuing nearly 75 people from their flooded homes with the use of a boat he borrowed from a friend. “You just couldn’t pass people up,” said Guidry.

The school has an incredible sense of gratitude, said Schlotterer. “There is no way to express what we are feeling. The folks at Broadmoor have been so flexible and so generous. As an administrator, and as a parent, this gives me peace.”

Story by Betty Backstrom, Communication Liaison for the Louisiana Conference

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