The Ottumwa Courier

August 28, 2013

Cooperation for children

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — It's just the kind of cooperative project donors like to see: One group had a successful school program but no more room. Another had plenty of square footage but no existing school program.

"When the preschool at the hospital closed, Seton was asked if we could help [handle overflow] of children," said Julie Gentz, principal at Seton Catholic School. "We looked for a larger classroom."

Seton is owned by St. Mary's of the Visitation Catholic Church, which is located at the corner of Court and Fourth streets. The Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation facilitated conversations among local day care providers. Gentz saw the writing on the wall, said a "neighbor" of Seton school.

"She guessed — correctly — that there would be an increased demand for preschool in the community," said Jon Disburg, pastor at First United Methodist Church.

Unfortunately, Seton had run out of space.

"We partnered with First United Methodist Church and rented two rooms from them, hired a teacher and two paraprofessionals," Gentz said.

That church, also on Fourth Street, is across the street from Seton.

As the wife of a pastor, Gentz said, she knew church members can be sensitive when it comes to changes to their landmark building. To have people from another church tearing out windows to install air conditioning units could have been worrisome among the Methodist congregation.

Even trickier, Disburg acknowledged, is the reality that cooperation between church groups of various denominations has not always been good. But that's changing, he believes.

"The one thing we have in common is faith in Christ," he said. "That should surpass doctrinal issues. Any time [those issues] would keep us from providing a safe place for children to learn, well, then, we need help."

Member support has been very positive, Disburg said. He'd known that the third floor of their 1800s-era church was under-utilized. The Seton staff did a great job turning that unused space into a pair of preschool classrooms, he said. The principal at Seton said they were able to do the work right thanks to a grant they landed last week from the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation.

"We now have 80 preschoolers. A great part of this story is a [project] bringing two church groups to the same table," Gentz said.

That empathy by the two church organizations matches up with one of the ideals the Legacy Foundation leaders have publicly talked about in the past: finding projects where cooperation among groups leverages what each has, creating a better program than either could have on their own.

While held at the Methodist church, these classes are still Seton classes, fully a part of Seton Catholic School. Couldn't First United Methodist Church simply have started their own preschool? First, said the pastor, it's not that simple. Secondly, why reinvent the wheel?

"There are certain realities that come with operating a preschool as opposed to just providing space," said Disburg. "They have a quality school, and we feel blessed to be able to provide ... the space. The added blessing here has been that it did take the cooperation of two traditions."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark