The bus rolls out at 6:50 a.m.. Thirty minutes later 45 kids pull into Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy. They are from all over the United States, all different ages, yet connected by parents that answer an unusual calling. As such, these children support one another, connect with each other, understand each others struggles and challenges because all their parents have chosen a slightly different path.
These are the Salvation Army children. Their parents are currently in training at the Salvation Army College and campus in downtown Atlanta. Originally opened in 1938, its mission is to train and ordain ministers who will be sent out to pastor churches and run community centers.
The two year training period is intense; and married couples must both be in training together. Often times these couples sell everything, including house and car, to live on campus and attend seminary. Their kids come with them, uprooted from what they have known, and plunged into a new life. This can be a difficult emotional and mental transition, especially for older kids whose parents have become living, breathing embodiments of the great commission.
Trying to meet the educational needs of forty-five kids whose parents are in school too, is challenging. This is where Lori Miller, a fifteen year officer for the Salvation Army comes in. Daughter and granddaughter of Salvation Army officers, she was charged with finding a school that supported these special children emotionally, socially and intellectually. Lori heard about Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy, made a few calls, and sat down to talk with Chuck Gilliam, Head of School, and Pastor Tim Dowdy, to discuss if Eagle’s Landing Christian would be a good fit. It was.
In the fall of 2013, the first students arrived, unsure of what to expect or how they would be received. What they found was a school that according to Lori Miller, “met their needs wherever each of them were.” Miller spoke about several teachers that were key in the transition of these young people. Teachers such as Michelle Blackburn and Lisa Cannon, who she said “invested themselves in a way that they wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere,” formed a basis for supportive progress of the children.
Miller also mentioned some of the support programs offered by ELCA as being instrumental in making the lives of these students a little less scary. One such program was MERIT, for students possessing learning differences. Another program is STARS in elementary, to help children improve their reading skills. These type programs help meet the various needs of the diverse group. “It’s important to remember,” Miller says, “that these children come from all over the United States and are at different learning levels.”
One particular student, Alyssa Aguirre, explains to me the difference between her public school in Tyler, Texas and the challenge of the more rigorous curriculum here at ELCA. “It is really different,” the soft spoken junior says, “the classes are harder here.” Alyssa, like most of the Salvation Army kids has mixed feelings about her new life. “I was happy for my parents because they finally got to do what they wanted to do,” Alyssa says, “but I was upset that I had to leave my friends and I had to leave my dogs.” I asked her what she likes about being here at Eagles Landing Christian. “The teachers…and I like chapel,” she replies “and I like that we can all pray before class.”
Another student, Steven Smith, a sophomore from Griffin, also mentions the teachers as instrumental in his transition, which he says was hard. “Mr. Stokes, my bible teacher, pretty much accepted me, and always asked me if I needed anything, or how I was doing.” He also feels he has been able to make friends easily here, baring out the old truism that kindness works.
In the end, it’s not just about what Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy gives these students, or the part it plays in their lives. It is also about the part these young people play in the life of the school – how Eagle’s Landing is impacted.
“ELCA has benefited too, I believe” says Miller. “We have been able to share information about the Salvation Army in chapel, so the kids have learned more about what we are, what we do.” In addition, students at Eagle’s Landing Christian have service days each year, where they go and work in the community. They have made several trips down to the campus in Atlanta. They have worked in the nursery, cleaned, decorated for Christmas, and worked outdoors. So, in a way, this is about so much more than an education, or people who will come and pass out of our lives relatively quickly. It is about making them feel less alone, while celebrating what makes these students unique. It’s about helping each other, and connecting with each other in ways that may not always be perceptible immediately. Lastly, it is about giving out what one would hope to get back, and making the journey easier for someone else, even if Intro to Physics or Trigonometry is a little more difficult than one would wish.
By Shelly McNeight