When Nina Hale founded Inner City Ministry in 1967, she had no idea the outreach program would still be operational in 2017. Yet this May, the McCallie Avenue ministry celebrated 50 years of service to children in the community.
Inner City Ministry, or "The Centenary," as it is affectionately called by the youth it serves, is an after-school and summer enrichment program based at First-Centenary United Methodist Church. For half a century, the program has been using a variety of recreational and educational activities to help local kids grow strong in spirit, body and mind.
"We're the advocates and support [system] for these kids," said Inner City Ministry Director Mary Grey Moses. "Not just for the academic support that they need in the afternoons, but in other ways as well. It's a safe place they can go."
Hale, now 74, started the outreach program during a time when she said children in the downtown area received very little support from the surrounding community. As a student of theology, Hale had long felt called to do outreach abroad, but when Centenary Methodist Church and First Methodist Church, where she was director of Christian education, decided to merge in the 1960s, she saw an opportunity to serve the children in her own neighborhood.
As construction of the new church took place, Hale pushed officials to build a playground as well as a daily program that would become Inner City Ministry. She then went door to door to invite children to the program, and through her interactions with the families, she learned about the needs that had gone unmet.
She found that many children were not attending school or were doing poorly for reasons often related to a lack of finances. Some couldn't attend because their family couldn't afford shoes, others couldn't focus because they went to class hungry, and others had no place to go when class was over.
"I felt like God had called us to go see, and so we went to see what the needs were, and our church has been wonderful about responding to the needs of the people as we saw them," Hale said.
When it started, Inner City Ministry had about 70 kids, but that number quickly grew to 110, which the church learned was its capacity, said Hale. She said the city of Chattanooga partnered with the church to help make the program a success.
Today, Inner City Ministry has 97 children from kindergarten to 12th grade enrolled in the main program held at the church, and another 45 enrolled in a satellite reading program that meets at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center three times a week. Last school year alone, more than 130 volunteers came in to help the kids with their homework, provide tutoring, prepare after-school delicacies, supervise physical education activities and field trips and provide other valuable life experiences for the local children, said Moses.
"It's a better program today than when I started it," Hale said. "It's like having a baby grow up and seeing how wonderful it can be."
Among the most impressive improvements are those made to the tutoring program, said Hale. She credits Moses' leadership for the advancements that have made the one-on-one reading and homework tutoring "as good as any you'd pay for anywhere in town."
"The big push has always been helping kids make the academic gains they need," said Moses, who has served as the program's director for the past five years. "We have a really good success rate with kids that come into our program improving their reading grade level over a year. They really blossom and make up for a lot of things they haven't accomplished at school yet."
The educational aspects have made a huge impact in the lives of local children, especially those like Chantal, 14, who has been enrolled in the program since she was 5.
With no internet access at home, the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy student has often used Inner City Ministry's resources and internet connection to get homework done more efficiently, but her appreciation for the program goes far beyond Wi-Fi. After moving to Chattanooga from Tanzania, Africa, the program's reading coaching helped her learn to speak fluent English, and she said she learned more about the language at the church than she did at school.
"I would have struggled, and I don't think I would be who I am today if Inner City wasn't there," Chantal said. "It's like a family. You kind of get homesick [when you're not there]. It's just somewhere you'd want to be every afternoon after school and something that a lot of kids appreciate."
With the recent addition of a reading specialist and a teen program, Moses hopes to continue to grow the "The Centenary" with a continued focus on enriching kids' spirits, bodies and minds.
"That's really what the program's been about the whole way through," she said.