Alayna Settlemyer of Altoona is 10 and she loves the Bible.
She is thirsty for knowledge about Jesus Christ and is learning more every Saturday morning at Crosswalk a program launched by Altoona Restoration Church of God in March.
The idea for the program to teach children about God came from Sally Swindell, the wife of the pastor.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)Daniel the Lion recently entertained the kids who attend Crosswalk on Saturday mornings. The girls are (from left) Michelle Lovett, 7, Jayden Messmer, 7, and Brieionna Messmer, 9, all of Altoona.
"Her dream was to always have a Saturday morning Sunday school-type thing for children," Pastor Kim Swindell said.
So, the church purchased the old Uniform Gallery building on Seventh Avenue in Altoona and started the outreach program.
The Sunday school-type program is open to children ages 6 to 11 and was named Crosswalk as a metaphor for leading them to Christ.
"We want to offer them hope. We want to offer them the love of God. Kids need to realize they're special and they're God's gifts. They have special talents and gifts they need to learn to use," Kim Swindell said.
Crosswalk teachers relay the message of God through drama, puppets, clowns, Bible lessons, songs and games. On a recent Saturday, Daniel the Lion was a guest.
Kids are responding to the program, especially Alayna, who wants to keep attending when she passes its age limit.
"When you turn 12, you can't be there anymore, and I asked if I could help out and teach when I'm 12," Alayna said, explaining she looks forward to Crosswalk sessions. "I like how whenever they do Bible stuff they kind of mix it up with games."
Barbara Settlemyer, Alayna's grandmother, first heard about the program while picking out free clothing offered at Crosswalk.
"I went up and that's how I got us involved in the church program," Settlemyer said. "They make it fun for the kids, and they're not bored. They just love it."
Reaching children at a young age is the focus of Crosswalk.
Eventually, Crosswalk hopes to have program for teens, but elementary-age students are the initial focus said Laurie Rogers, Christian education director for the church.
Rogers, who grew up in Juniata, remembers receiving spiritual lessons from an early age and believes she was able to avoid negative influences because of her background. She said as teens a lot of her friends became involved in drugs, alcohol and sexual activity.
To counter that culture, Rogers' parents started a teen group in their home when she was about 11 or 12 and her brother was about 13 or 14. She said her dad would play football with the teens, and her mom would teach a lesson and serve snacks. So many teens attended that they eventually had to meet in a church.
It was the only spiritual time for a lot of the kids, Rogers said.
"They loved it. Their lifestyle was completely different. They would come to where somebody loved them and cared for them," she said.
After graduating from college, Rogers worked as a preschool teacher for two years and with inner city children in Charlotte, N.C., for about five years through a program called 2XSALT that was started by three NBA players.
Now, she has returned to her hometown to help kids acquire a spiritual base.
"By the time they're 12, they have their own opinions," she said. "They've already been introduced to everything that's out there. At age 6, they're more apt to listen," Rogers said.
The program begins with the basics.
Some children have never seen the Bible, so Rogers and her fellow teachers read it with the children and talk about Scripture at their level.
Children also learn to recite Scripture verses and gain understanding as to what God is saying in the Bible.
Word of the program has spread through Rogers, Swindell and other church members knocking on doors in the community, distributing flyers and contacting area youth groups and churches. When the program started, a handful of kids attended. Six months later, about 30 children attend weekly with about 17 volunteers helping with the program.
"I'm hoping that they will see the world differently. When you're brought up with a non-Christian background, I think they do view things differently. I think they don't see the joy in life. Kids today don't get told how special they are," Rogers said. "We want them to know that someone is out there 24/7 and loves them and will always be special to them."