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Volunteers with First United Methodist Church accepted Thursday, May 10, 2018, the Crystal Apple award given out annually by the group, Volunteers In Public Schools. The ceremony was held at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. The Crystal Apple goes to individuals or groups who for 10 years or more have volunteered in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools. Pictured (from left) Mary Treppendahl, Joan Pennington, Judy Lithgoe, Henry Bradsher and Monica Bradsher, all volunteers with the church; they’re joined, at right, by Bernard Terrace Principal Demetric Alexander and her daughter, Paige, 5.

Volunteers with First United Methodist Church have been doing so many things for public schools in Baton Rouge for so long that it’s hard to keep track of it all.

The volunteers at the downtown Baton Rouge church tutor children at two primary schools, Bernard Terrace and Magnolia Woods, in reading and math. At Bernard Terrace, the church runs an after-school program known as HYPE. Church members provide students with school supplies, backpacks, uniforms and Christmas toys. They help on the first day of school, during standardized tests, and at many school events. They’ve installed benches, billboards and pegs to hold book bags. And that’s not counting $14,000 in cash the church raises for the two schools.

“They never say no,” said Demetric Alexander, principal of Bernard Terrace Elementary. “I don’t think no is in their vocabulary.”

They are so active that Senior Pastor Brady Whitton even hired a staff person, Mary Treppendahl, just to coordinate all its school activities. Treppendahl, a former teacher, has the title of “missionary to public schools.”

The church’s more than 35 years of volunteering was recognized Thursday by Volunteers in Public Schools as it awarded the religious organization its 2017 Crystal Apple. The nonprofit group gives the award annually to a standout person or organization volunteering in East Baton Rouge Parish’s public schools for at least 10 years.

First United Methodist Church was chosen over three other veteran volunteers for the coveted honor.

Thursday’s ceremony was held at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. A handful of the school’s most active volunteers were on hand to accept the award.

“We’ve been nominated and disappointed many times,” said Monica Bradsher, a retired teacher who began coordinating volunteer activities at the church in 2000.

Bradsher and fellow volunteer and church member Joan Pennington are also board members with Volunteers In Public School, but they said VIPS kept both of them in the dark about who would win this year’s Crystal Apple.

VIPS is best known for its Reading Friends program, which pairs adults to work one on one with struggling young readers. The program operates in kindergarten to second grade. The church was the first group to pilot working with kindergartners back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Bradsher said some volunteers come in skeptical of public schools, but they soon see how far behind many children are and how much effort it is for teachers to try to catch them up.

“(Children) come in scoring zero on the entry test because they don’t know the alphabet at all,” Bradsher said.

“They don’t know their names some of them,” said Pennington.

“Had a child a couple of years ago who didn’t know the word for red, which is something I think most children learn when they’re two or three,” added Bradsher.

But once children get help, especially if they are kindergartners, they learn quickly, Bradsher said.

Judy Lithgoe, who started volunteering three years ago at Magnolia Woods, said she hesitated awhile before volunteering, worried about how she would be received. But that evaporated right away with her welcome at the school.

“We are so revered by the teachers and the children, and that’s just a heartwarming feeling” Lithgoe said.

First United Methodist has persuaded VIPS to expand its offering. A couple of years, after reading an article in the New York Times, Bradsher got the organization to start Ready4K!, a program where parents of children about to start kindergarten get helpful texts with thought-provoking questions and information aimed at helping them prepare their children for the start of school.

“You don’t think to talk about the colors in a room, but a little something like that can go a long way towards school readiness,” Treppendahl explained.

Volunteers in Public Schools also awarded Golden Apple honors to the following individuals and groups: Alice Hondzinski, who volunteers at LaBelle Aire Elementary; Ashley Rasco, who volunteers at Westdale Middle School; and Faith, Hope & Love Worship Center, whose members volunteer at Istrouma High School.

To sign up as a volunteer through VIPS, visit vipsbr.org or call (225) 226-4702.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.