FBC / West Hills Ministries
As featured in "The Herald" (Sharon, PA)
SHARON – The Rev. Cindy Swogger knows when school is officially over for the day.
She doesn’t glance at the clock or wait for a bell to ring. She listens for the footsteps and the sounds of children coming down the stairs at West Hill Ministries.
“They make a joyful noise,” she said.
And she would not have it any other way.
Meeting the needs of the children of Sharon’s West Hill neighborhood and giving them a place to go after school has been more than just a job for Swogger and the volunteers and staff who have kept the program going for, now, more than 25 years.
It is a mission, and a labor of love, she says.
West Hill Ministries, which is housed in First Baptist Church on West State Street, started as a once-a-week after-school program.
“We had no clue that 25 years later we would still be doing this,” Swogger said.
Swogger came to the program after a career in private business. She had been working with the youth ministry at First Baptist under the direction of Senior Pastor Robert Trojak when she decided to go to the seminary. After completing her education, she started working full-time. Eventually, she took on the job of director of what would be a new program for children.
The initial funding came as a gift from a local business, but keeping the programs funded was not so easy.
“We never got another dime – the business fell on hard times,” Swogger said. “But the Lord has provided for us.”
From Day 1, she said the focus was simple: There were children who needed a place to go and communities that needed their churches.
“There were children everywhere,” she said. “I have always thought churches needed to do something for them.”
And a place to go after school is not all West Hill offers. A clothing closet and other support programs also are available for families.
“Anyone can come in (to the closet) and get whatever they need for their kids,” Swogger said.
The program has thrived and uses not just First Baptist, but First United Methodist and St. Joseph’s Church facilities for children of a variety of ages. There are about 70 children at West Hill, 60 at St. Joe’s and 25 at First Methodist, where there is a teen program. There are plans – hopes, really – to start a sports-centered program at First United Methodist.
Funding now comes mostly from grants and some private donations.
The churches that host the programs assume some of the financial obligations – mostly associated with the costs of the facilities themselves. Their parishioners offer support as well.
“Local organizations also support our efforts, not always with money,” Swogger said. “But money always helps.”
The children have opportunities to go to camp – with the older children acting as camp counselors – as well as on trips when tickets are donated.
“It is an opportunity to get the children out of their little world and to see a bigger possibility,” Swogger said. “It gives them a chance to dream.”
Recent grant cutbacks have hurt the program lately, limiting some of the offerings for the children.
More of the grant money offered these days is designated for community development opportunities, Swogger said. She said she thinks West Hill’s mission fits right in with that objective.
The children in her program, she said, are this community’s future.
“Some of the kids we work with, some of them are not going to leave to go to college,” she said. “They are not going anywhere. We need to find something for them to do – and to show them that they can have a chance at a future.”
And some of the alumni from West Hill have gone on to find just that – a future.
One young woman is working in an after-school program in New York City, while another, a young man who attended Slippery Rock University, just came back at Thanksgiving to tell Swogger he is running a Salvation Army unit.
And the influence West Hill Ministries has is generational as well.
“There are kids who have married and now we have their children,” Swogger said.
The programs are designed to be local.
“We try to have programs for neighborhoods,” Swogger said. “It is nice to have it where kids can walk, but it is up to the parents to get them here.”
She said some of the children the program serves come from challenging environments, but is quick to point out that labels don’t always come in one size fits all.
“It is easy to tag them as underprivileged,” she said. “But I would say that there are many ways to be underprivileged – and it is not always economic.”
She said the West Hill program is not just about the children, either.
“The longer I do this, the more convinced I am that if you want to reach the kids, you have to reach the family,” she said.
Although the program is faith-based, Swogger said she works to make sure that families feel welcome and accepted.
And while the “church” label can be a barrier initially, it can be overcome eventually, she said, because the bottom line is that the parents, Swogger, her staff and the volunteers, all want the same thing.
“No matter what kind of person they are, they all still want what is best for their kids,” she said. “And if they see you are on their side, they relax.”
The children at West Hill are expected to live up to their end of the bargain, too. There are rules, Swogger says, and consequences for less than desirable behavior.
Positive reinforcements and rewards are how she gets the children to understand that they have a responsibility, too. She said she rarely has a serious issue with any of her kids.
“Most of the time, we try to work on changing the behavior,” she said. “Even when they are horrendous, and I have to be stern, they know that we will move on. I don’t hold it against them.”
But no matter what happens, and even when they are having a bad day, Swogger says she wants the children to know, they are in a safe, accepting and secure place to be themselves.
“Kids are like everyone else,” she said. “They want you to listen to them and to care.”
Swogger said the ministry would be nowhere without its volunteers. One of them, Joanna Slater, has been there since the beginning.
“We tease her that she is good – for nothing,” Swogger said.
Slater said she is there for one reason.
“I love the kids,” she said.
And the staff is dedicated, too.
Emily O’Malley has been program director for three years.
She love her job, she says, because of kids.
“They make me laugh,” she said. “They are the best part of my day.”
And caring is Job No. 1 at West Hill, Swogger said.
“When the kids come down the stairs, they find someone who loves them,” she said.