Giving Kids Hope: Street saints on the move

by Barbara Elliot


There is a quiet revolution going on in America. In a country once anchored by its faith, we have suffered a flood of secularization. But there is an undercurrent scarcely perceptible, a ripple of movement barely registering. This counter-current is

taking people out of the sanctuary and into the streets of their communities. These are people of faith who are willing to go where there is pain and suffering in their cities, and offer a healing presence of love. These unsung heroes are renewing America, one heart at a time.

“Street saints” are putting an arm around abused grade-schoolers and teaching them to read, walking into prisons to convince criminals not to commit new crimes, and giving bullet-pocked neighborhoods hope. They are working creatively, turning gang members into computer programmers and equipping former drug addicts with job and life skills. They are giving immigrants the entrepreneurial skills to support their families with the dignity that comes from work. They are touching the least, the last, and the lost with love. And they are discovering that the transformation is mutual.

This unlikely army of compassion includes soccer moms, reformed crackheads and con men, grade school dropouts and PhDs, former prostitutes and business executives, preachers and ex-gang bangers. They may be black, white, Latino, or Asian, but they are discovering that their convictions transcend racial, political, or socio-economic boundaries. What they share is a commitment to put their faith into action.

 Eight years on the front lines with the street saints, distilled into more than three hundred interviews throughout the entire country, reveal a stunning portrait of lives changed through the grace of God. Street saints who are using their charisms effectively are producing results in the people they touch. Mentors who convey divine love through the gifts of encouragement and teaching are producing improved behavior and academic results in at-risk grade-schoolers they visit. Effective prison ministry has reduced the number of convicts who return to prison within three years from more than 50 percent to 10 percent by changing their hearts. Faith-based programs for alcohol and drug addiction are freeing as many as 83% of the addicts they work with, compared to single digit results from their secular counterparts. The recurring message that emerges from programs like these is that faith works.

Every single person who believes in Christ has been charged to become a disciple, a mature believer, who then recognizes the call to work for the Kingdom as an apostle and to exercise their spiritual gifts to accomplish it. The street saints who are out in the community putting their faith into action outside the walls of the church are having a profound effect. Their success is an indication that there truly is a power at work in them that goes beyond the ordinary.

However, not everyone who claims to be doing the Lord’s work is necessarily effective. Some outreach efforts may make the participants feel good about themselves, but produce no lasting results in the recipients because they don’t touch root causes. Other programs are hard to sustain over time because they lack structure.

What follows is an overview of one of the “best practice” models that has mobilized the energy and good will of people in the church and deployed it effectively. This proven model incorporates a variety of different charisms, complementary gifts needed to make up a successful team. As a microcosm, it is a living example of the way the different gifts work throughout the body of the Church as a whole.

Kids Hope USA

Youngsters all over the country are going home tonight to pockets in our cities where life is fractured. Maybe dad is in jail. Mom may have a drug problem. Kids in the neighborhood are in gangs, and there’s shooting outside. Grade school kids have friends who have been killed, and they wonder if they’re going to live past 18. Hardly anybody has a hands-on good dad they spend time with. They’ve scarcely been outside the neighborhood; their school is a joke; poverty is normal, and so is abuse. There’s no reason to hope things are going to get better. These are America’s at-risk kids. There may be as many as 8.2 million, but no one knows for certain.

The one thing at-risk kids are desperate for, but can’t name, is a stable relationship with a caring adult. In response to this need, Virgil Gulker founded Kids Hope USA in 1995. Kids Hope USA links one-to-one: one congregation to one public elementary school, one adult to one child. Each adult commits to meet one hour a week with one at-risk child for one year, meeting them at their school. Their task is to let that child know they are valuable, and that they are loved. Just doing that has a profound effect, first in stabilizing the emotions of the youngster, then their behavior, then their motivation in class, and finally their academic achievement. Most of these kids have never had an adult who just shows up on a regular basis to give them unconditional love.

While the task of healing all the at-risk children in the nation is too daunting, almost anyone can carve out one hour a week for one child. The congregations whose members have done this find that it not only has a profound effect on the child, but on the mentors, who often for the first time in their lives are explicitly tasked to be a presence of Christ’s love. The heat and light that comes back into the church as the mentors grow is inspiring.

Pastor David Deters of Grand Rapids, Michigan, testifies that “Kids Hope USA has revitalized my vision and made tangible in my life the coming kingdom of God. It has brought the Kingdom of God right here, outside my window.”

Kids Hope USA has been replicated in 283 partnerships in 26 states, and is now providing mentors for 4700 at-risk children. It has been recognized by the past three Presidents, received a Daily Presidential Points of Light Award and was named the “premier paradigm of faith-based mentoring” by the Points of Light Foundation.

Part of the reason for Kids Hope USA’s success is that it is intelligently designed with a solid infrastructure. The pastor and the principal make a binding agreement to partner. The school selects the youngest children they see in the most need of help. Kids Hope becomes a ministry of the congregation, involving a team of parishioners. At least ten mentors are trained to go into the schools, and a part-time coordinator from the congregation who is also trained for the job serves as the hub for the team. To strengthen the work spiritually, ten prayer partners are mobilized, with each designated to pray for one of the children and their mentor, giving shut-ins, the elderly, or people who travel a way to participate. A hospitality coordinator celebrates the children and their families when they are invited into the church with their mentors. All of the participants have written job descriptions and standards of accountability. Mentors get weekly suggestions from the teachers on what the kids need most, and both give weekly evaluations to track progress.

This model is built to last: 94% of the programs established since 1995 are still operational. The results have been remarkable. Teachers surveyed reported that the mentees’ detentions dropped to half, positive behavior and self-control increased, and academic skills increased by 95% in the first year. Dan Takens, principal of Brookwood Elementary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says “The Kids Hope USA program has had the largest impact on the students of any program I have ever worked with.” School principals are stepping up in droves to ask Kids Hope USA to come into their schools.

When Virgil Gulker began research to devise a model for a mentoring program, he thought academic needs would be at the forefront of principals’ concerns. He was surprised to be told their emotional needs were even more pressing. One said, “I want you to see these children as emotional checkbooks who are completely overdrawn. What they need is a deposit of love in their hearts.” What happens with each deposit of love transforms lives in several directions.

As the child begins to respond, their parent at home wants to know who is having this profound effect on their child. When the mentor meets the mother, it may become apparent that she needs domestic abuse counseling or reliable transportation to work to keep her job. Then someone from the church can be connected to her to fix her car or get her help. The child’s mother may decide to come to church as a result of the friendship that begins. She may ask for help for another one of her children. The mentor’s husband may offer to take Joey to a baseball game to do “guy” things with him, or teach him how to ride a bicycle. What happens naturally from one relationship radiates out into others, knitting lives together in life-healing ways.

To establish a Kids Hope USA team in a parish, several different charisms are needed. Someone with the gift of leadership is needed to take the vision and move it into reality with the priest, the principal, and enough parishioners to form a core team of at least ten mentors and ten prayer partners. An individual with the gift of administration is needed to serve as the program’s director, who will interface with the mentors and teachers, setting up the times for mentoring at the school, tracking the progress, and keeping all the team members in motion.

Being a mentor is an opportunity for several different gifts, among them encouragement, mercy, and teaching—it is a multifaceted role, not unlike parenting. All the children and their families will be invited to the church with their mentors for celebrations, and the person who celebrates them should have the gift of hospitality. Someone with the charism of service to assist in these events would be welcome. A person with the gift of evangelism would be excellent to interact with the families when they visit the church (but not at the school, where evangelization may not take place.) A person with the gift of mercy would be a great resource to spring into action to meet the needs of parents that become apparent. If some of the prayer partners had the charism of intercessory prayer, it would enhance the prayer teams.

The mentors themselves need not have a professional background in education. In fact, mentors from one Houston congregation include a retired jazz band director, a medical research scientist, a pediatrician, a professional business woman, a computer consultant, an ICU nurse, an accountant, a retired insurance salesman, and a district judge.

In practice, this model has been so effective for several reasons. It draws on the various charisms present in a congregation, putting them to work as a body. The program itself is focused in its strategy, reaching youngsters early enough to make a lasting difference over time. Kids Hope USA is a beautiful way to mobilize the laity into meaningful outreach that helps faith reach out of the church and into the community where there is need. And it is changing lives through the quiet demonstration of love in action.

If you are interested in Kid’s Hope USA, please contact Virgil Gulker at and visit For more examples of faith at work throughout America, please see Barbara J. Elliott is the author of Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press) and the founder of the Center for Renewal in Houston, TX, serving Christ-centered ministries. She and her husband, Winston, have four youngsters in high school and college. She has served as an international television correspondent for PBS and in the White House.