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by Nancy Gruben
Puente del Pueblo is a joint community outreach of our church’s two ministry “arms”—Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo. Located in the Timber Lake (formerly Westwood) apartment complex in West Chicago, Puente provides a growing range of offerings for residents, including an after-school program, tutoring, case management, youth camps, summer programs, literacy and language programs, Bible studies, and much more. This article explores some of Puente’s history, along with details of new opportunities now unfolding.
As it so often happens, this particular work of God began with a prompting in the heart of a single person, and quickly grew into a vision and reality that God alone could assemble. Along the way, as He so graciously does, God has called and welcomed many to join Him in this facet of His transformational work—right here in our community.
Puente del Pueblo translates to “bridge of the people” or “the town bridge.” The name was chosen because Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo wanted this community outreach initiative to serve as a bridge between our church and those around us. But from its first days, it has also served as a bridge of care, mutual respect, learning, and growth between many different groups within our church, the community, the city, the Puente staff and volunteers, as well as the men, women, and children it serves. All agree: it is a bridge that only God could have built.
About five years ago WBC’s Senior Pastor, Rob Bugh, called key leaders from our church’s Hispanic congregation (Iglesia del Pueblo) and WBC’s Local Impact ministries into his office. He told them that a church member had recently been moved to make a $100,000 donation, asking only that it be used in some sort of shared community outreach between these two arms of the church.
This was in 2006, when our building was still located in downtown Wheaton, just around the time we were breaking ground for our current campus. Though the move to West Chicago was still at least two years away, Chris McElwee, WBC’s Local Impact Pastor, and Hanibal Rodriguez, now Iglesia’s Pastor of Teaching, Education, and Doctrine, had already begun talking and dreaming together about how we might serve our new community. This God-prompted donation was exactly what they needed to move forward.
One of the very first calls they made was to Chris Ellerman, the CEO of Outreach Community Ministries. For more than thirty years, this local ministry has been a shining example of transformational community outreach and has ministry roots entwined with our own. In fact, Wheaton Bible Church was one of the ministry’s founding churches, and we continue to support its work to this day. As Chris McElwee explains, “The seeds for Outreach Community were actually planted when a youth pastor from Wheaton Bible Church led a Vacation Bible School and a “Sidewalk Sunday school” at a Carol Stream apartment complex. He ended up renting an apartment and doing outreach there. Eventually he got several churches—including WBC—together, and they hired Chris Ellerman, then a Wheaton grad student, to come and lead the effort.”
Now our church was looking to Ellerman’s expertise and experience to plan an effective use of this one-time, designated gift. What they received instead was a magnified vision and a successful model they could adopt and adapt.
“When we talked with Chris Ellerman,” McElwee explains, “he cast a vision for something much bigger. He encouraged us to use the donation we’d been given as seed money rather than just a one-time effort that would be over and done with. So we expanded our thinking about what God might have in mind, and we started looking at bigger, ongoing possibilities, using Community Outreach as our model. They began that process by listening. What they heard was followed by a series of events only God could have orchestrated.”
The team was convinced we should focus on West Chicago. Not only was the church moving to that community, but the city also had a large Hispanic population, which lined up well for a joint effort between our two congregations.
But, as Chris McElwee recalls, “We wanted to begin with a listening tour of West Chicago. That would help us do two things: first, it would let us know what the needs were. But second, it would let the community know that we were listening, not just ‘landing.’ We didn’t want to step on toes; we truly wanted to serve. So we met with the police. We met with the schools. We met with social workers. We met with community leaders. And we wound up meeting with a city employee who was running the Neighborhood Resource Center at the Westwood Apartments, which is now called Timber Lake.”
The Neighborhood Resource Center was a government-funded program led by an employee of the West Chicago Police Department. Already running a food pantry and an after-school program for teens within the apartment complex property, she was extremely open to a church-led initiative, centered in the complex, that would include an after-school program for younger children, along with case management for under-resourced residents.
Timber Lake was also an ideal location for other reasons. It was just a few miles away from the new church property. And, with 584 units, at capacity it is home to about 2,000 residents—8 percent of the total population of West Chicago. The complex is also the residence of many immigrant families, including 500 children and students.
Other pieces fell into place. The complex is located next door to the Wegner School, a public elementary school willing to provide classrooms to Puente del Pueblo for an after-school program. More than that, the teachers and faculty were extremely positive about the advantages an extended-day experience could provide to their students, especially children of immigrants who often came in behind grade level or without strong English skills.
The owners of the complex were also on board. Much more than that, they greeted the possibility of Puente’s new ministry with literal tears of joy. A Christian couple who attend a Bible-believing church in Naperville, they were approached by Chris McElwee and Hanibal Rodriguez about renting an apartment for Puente’s office. “When we first met them over breakfast, they were in tears as we were telling them our plan,” Chris recalls. “They have a huge heart for the people who live in the complex. They even told us stories about teenagers in the apartments who were getting into minor scrapes or skipping school—and they’d talk with them and offer them a cash incentive to read a book like The Purpose Driven Life. They not only rented us the two apartments we needed; they also affirmed our idea of offering both an after-school program and case-management services. They understood that helping kids involves embracing the whole family.”
Casting the vision for this new and ongoing ministry, the church took a special offering and hired the first staff members—one full-time teacher, a part-time teacher, a part-time case manager, and Puente del Pueblo Director Matthew McNiel.
“We launched our after-school program on November 17, 2008,” Matthew McNiel said. “We had 11 students in one classroom.”
Today, the program has grown to three classrooms, with a total of 49 students, and 15 on a waiting list. Entry into the program is available to children who live in the Timber Lake Apartments and who are referred by their teachers, with some preference given each year to returning students. The program focuses completely on academics four days a week, with optional attendance for Christian education on Friday.
“The program centers around homework completion, but also homework understanding,” Matthew McNiel explains. “We want this to be different from the rest of the school day, and one of the biggest ways we make that happen is through the ratio of students to teachers and volunteer tutors. On many days we have six tutors for each classroom of 16 or 17, which gives it a very personalized feel. We also offer a nutritional snack and reserve 30 minutes for something recreational like music, sports, or games.”
Asked why Christian education is optional and reserved for Fridays, Matthew responds thoughtfully, “We recognize that the program holds power, because it’s an excellent, free academic resource for immigrant families. Some of those families are of other faiths. We wouldn’t want to “power up” by saying they could only take advantage of the program by tolerating Christian education. We want them to have the freedom to opt out. Although, given the choice, nearly all the kids do participate.”
As the after-school program has grown, so have the relationships with the school, teachers, and families. As any teacher knows, a classroom is a personal space. Allowing someone to use it after hours is akin to letting someone entertain in your home while you’re not there. Now operating out of three classrooms at the school, Chris and Matthew credit the teachers’ genuine care for their students’ achievements for the welcome they have received, along with their own efforts to be good “guests” in the facility.
“For example, we have a no-questions-asked policy that if something in a classroom is broken, we replace it,” Matthew says. “And at the end of the year, we always provide a teacher-appreciation lunch to thank them for letting us use the facility and partnering with us.”
This informal time together allows teachers to provide feedback on the program, which complements their larger classroom management with individualized tutoring. Many of them share their appreciation on behalf of their students, and also express amazement at the number of volunteers willing to come help and invest in the lives of their kids.
Relationships with families within the complex have also grown as Puente has come to be seen as a trusted source of help, not only by the complex managers but also by the residents themselves. The management office for the complex is only about twenty yards from the Puente office. In the first year, 60 percent of referrals came from there, but now that number has dropped to 30 percent, with most referrals coming from friends and neighbors. Matthew sees this as a very good sign: “This says that word of our work has spread and that people liked their experience. It was a dignifying experience when they came. In fact, last year more than 125 families came to our case management office for some type of need they were facing.”
Those needs have helped expand and shape the scope of Puente’s outreach to what it is today. Most people would assume that learning English would be the biggest need of immigrants, and indeed, ESL tutors are currently matched with 50 Timber Lake residents through Puente’s ministry. However, a more primary concern for many has been Spanish literacy. “In our first year, we had many Hispanic folks coming to our office asking for help in reading Spanish documents,” Matthew recalls. “For many, education in their country of origin was costly—not free and compulsory as it is here. Some came out of extreme poverty, going to work in the fields by the age of eight. Others who had lost a mother at an early age told of how they left school to help support their family.”
One of Puente’s staff members, Case Manager Irene Owens, had previously attended training as a Spanish literacy teacher and began this area of Puente’s outreach in 2010. “She showed a lot of leadership, including volunteering additional hours,” Chris McElwee recounts. “She led the first small group of Spanish literacy students, with five men—all who are now reading and have wonderful stories of life change as a result.”
During the summers, others stepped up to help create and run additional programs. A men’s Huddle group poured themselves into the creation of a baseball camp. A church attender who is also a board member at a Christian camp provided Puente with twenty-four scholarships for week-long, sleep-away children’s camp. A soccer camp was added to the summer offerings when Iglesia del Pueblo’s sports ministry changed the location of their summer soccer camp to Wegner School, giving easier access to residents’ children. A karate camp, a back-to-school camp, and a fine arts camp were additional summer offerings as willing volunteers stepped forward to lead and serve.
The expansion of Puente also resulted in some growing pains. Staff members were often juggling their small spaces between case management, volunteer training, and ESL tutoring. Having already trained and activated twenty volunteer ESL tutors early last year, Matthew made the decision to train twenty more—a move he describes as “an act of faith.” The facility they had simply didn’t have the space for the growth they were experiencing.
Chris McElwee explains an additional concern they were facing: “In our original plan, the idea was to work with students all the way through twelfth grade. This was one of the things most important to Iglesia del Pueblo, because they wanted to see these kids go to college. Many of the Hispanic immigrants never had the opportunity for an education themselves. Now that they’re in America, they want their children to go to college. But how were we going to facilitate that?”
Then, late last spring, the chief of police came to Chris to let him know that the Neighborhood Resource Center was facing budget cuts that might require them to move out of their space. Chris recalls the conversation clearly. “He said, ‘If we had to move, would you consider moving in?’ I didn’t even have to pray about that one! I told him that we’d been wanting to expand, and this would provide us with the ideal facility to do so. Of course, at the time I didn’t know how we were going to afford it, because I knew it would mean additional staff and renovation costs.”
God, however, was already lining up the resources. A new donor stepped up who has a heart to begin a college scholarship fund. And through the combined gifts of many, many others, Puente del Pueblo found itself with the additional budget to access and utilize this 2,300-square-foot building for the coming year. It is ideally located, right in the center of the Timber Lake complex.
Over the past few months, Iglesia del Pueblo felt the time was right to begin a Community Group at Timber Lake. They invited people from Iglesia del Pueblo who live in West Chicago to join Jesus on His mission by going into the community and caring for their neighbors and proclaiming the Gospel to the lost. Leaning into the relationships made over the past two years, they scheduled an introductory meeting and invited people to come. They had eighteen adults the first Wednesday night and have had consistent attendance in the several months since.
The new space couldn’t have come at a better time. “We’re using the building for the Wednesday night Community Group Bible study,” Matthew says. “And as for all those ESL tutors we had just trained? Well, the timing of it—you just couldn’t plan it.”
The pieces have also fallen into place for the expanded outreach to junior high and high school students. “Wil Franco, a passionate and energetic new staff member, has come on as part-time youth coordinator for Iglesia, and three-quarters time at Puente,” says Chris. “Just this month he started a junior high and high school program in the new facility, including an after-school ‘academics’ program for up to twenty-five junior high kids, four days a week.”
Each step of the way, God has led and provided. Puente’s budget in the first year was about $150,000—50 percent more than the initial gift and all provided by men and women who had caught the expanded vision. This past year, donations were nearly $350,000. And 120 different individuals volunteered more than 10,000 hours of time—the equivalent of five full-time employees.
And that original seed money? “In a sense, we still have it,” Chris McElwee explains. “Our budget this past year was three times the size of that original gift. And at the end of the year, we still had more than the original gift in our account. So God really has affirmed that He could provide for an ongoing outreach to our neighbors here.”
What is most rewarding, however, has nothing to do with finances. As both Chris and Matthew readily confirm, it is the way God has affirmed the joint efforts of Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo.
“To me,” Matthew says, “this most recent opportunity for expanded space and the exciting things that are happening in the Bible study feel like providential circumstances in which God is saying, ‘Keep at it. I affirm your effort. Let’s work together on this.’”
Chris concurs wholeheartedly. “I think the most exciting thing, which was the goal from the start, was for Iglesia and WBC to work together outside the walls of the church. It’s taken us three years, but what we were dreaming of before Rob called us into his office—we’re there. Iglesia is doing what they do really well—proclaiming the Gospel in the Spanish language and Bible study. And WBC is doing what we do well, which is after-school programming and providing volunteers. All of us are playing to our strengths. God is leading the way. And we’re seeing people come to know Jesus.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Gruben is a volunteer in our Communication area. She and her husband, Don, have attended Wheaton Bible Church since 1995.