St. Thomas’ Church: A Community with a Common Call to Service

Episcopal Community Services means something different to all who know the name.

Mothers experiencing homelessness know ECS as a safe haven where they and their children can rest and recharge at night. Residents just southwest of the city know it as the host of their favorite family activity, Darby Dinners, where a sense of community is served alongside nutritious meals twice a month. And parishes across the Diocese of Pennsylvania know ECS as a long-time partner in carrying out a common call to service.

The support of St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh spans decades. In recent years, the church and its congregation have worked hand-in-hand with ECS to provide funds for youth programs and host celebrations like Harvest Fest and the Be An Angel Christmas Party.

Proceeds from their hugely-successful monthly rummage sale, The Barn’s Second Saturday Sale, have funded much of their charitable giving through the years. Hoping to deepen their impact, St. Thomas’ Outreach Committee recently reevaluated how it would disburse grants and decided to focus its giving through larger sums to carefully-selected missions.

Episcopal Community Services was awarded a three-year $100,000 grant to pilot a volunteer mentoring partnership that benefits youth in our workforce development programs.

“We knew that ECS would be a great partner because we had such a long history of [providing] activities like Be An Angel,” said John Kepner, parishioner of St. Thomas’ Church, long-standing ECS volunteer, former ECS board president, and husband to Mimi Kepner, also a former ECS board president. Kepner has championed the program with ECS staff since its early days.

“These kinds of programs are most impactful for helping others, and also most impactful for our parishioners—where they can be directly involved in hands-on activities. A mentoring program has all those ingredients: hands-on participation for parishioners [and] more impactful dollars to an organization that had proven over many, many years, its excellence in administrative capabilities and in helping those that need help,” Kepner added.

Jahniya, who had participated in our youth and workforce development programs for three years, was someone looking for extra help.

Bright and hardworking, she first signed up for Seeing Youth Succeed (SYS) as a ninth grader, where on Saturday afternoons, 14 through 18-year olds hone their soft professional skills and begin preparing for life after high school. The program matches each teen’s aptitudes and interests to a college and career plan to help them set their vision for the future.

Jahniya was a high school senior at the time the mentor program was launching. About to begin the daunting college application process, she was unsure of where to start.

“In my school, we had college counselors, but there were so many of us [students]. They didn’t have one-on-one time for everybody,” she said. “So I thought it would be best if I had a mentor that was only about me—that I’d be the only person they had to worry about.”

ECS also recruited qualified mentees from the RISE Initiative, SYS’ counterpart program where young adults up to age 30 work on the basics of getting a job, such as building a resume, creating and submitting a job application, interviewing, and networking.

Research proves that having, or not having, the proper social supports affect one’s wellbeing. Some RISE participants may not have the strongest family networks, nor are they necessarily connected to people who share their goals, like earning a college degree or meaningful, long-term employment.

“The intention was to introduce RISE mentees to a new network of people who have accomplished similar goals. It’s important to have those kinds of people around you as an example … to keep on going,” said Arley Styer, MSS, MLSP, chief of programs, who created and expanded the workforce development programming over the past four years.

Ten mentors from St. Thomas’ and 10 mentees from SYS and RISE were identified to test the new program. After intensive training, government clearances, and time with staff, St. Thomas’ parishioners were on their way to make a difference in the lives of the young people they would come to know.

Jahniya was connected to her mentor, Ms. Kelly, a financial professional, who helped Jahniya navigate her way through the college application and financial aid processes.

“If I hadn’t had her, my process would have been a lot more stressful than it already was,” Jahniya said. “Ms. Kelly was my mentor, but she was also like a friend or parent at the same time because she gave me responsibility. She really looked out for me.”

In the coming year, ECS and St. Thomas’ will begin the second cohort of the pilot. New mentors and mentees are being added, and the work of expanding the mentor opportunity to others will begin, thus expanding the collective impact that is possible when we work together.

Whatever comes to mind when you hear the name, ECS represents one community with one common purpose. For individuals who want to help make the world a better place, ECS provides opportunities to volunteer time and expertise and continues to be a trusted cause in which to invest. For Jahniya and other motivated young people, ECS is a great coach—a place that will come to mind when asked who their favorite teacher was growing up.