Faith Leaders Attend 2018 kidoNomiCs Forum

Mary Jane Wilson-Parsons leads a congregation of retirees, but experts keep calling to learn about her church’s summer reading camp—for kids.

“My congregation realizes you can’t sit at the beach all the time, and you can only play so many rounds of golf. They want to give back,” Wilson-Parsons said from her office at Seaside United Methodist Church in Sunset Beach, N.C., which she’s co-pastored with husband Scott for the past 10 years.

Wilson-Parsons was one of 78 North Carolina rural faith leaders in attendance at the two-day 2018 kidonomics Forum, which engaged the faith community—often the informal and sometimes the only social service centers in communities across the state—through a faith leaders luncheon held at the end of Day 2.

“Rural faith leaders represent thousands of North Carolinians, and faith communities themselves often reflect trends, attitudes, issues and opportunities that also exist in their rural communities at large. Gathering together as faith leaders to ‘check in’ is helping digest a lot of information through our particular lenses, both rural and faith-related,” said Kylie Foley, IEI’s rural faith communities fellow.

“Rural faith communities are essential partners in tackling any issue at the local level in our state. They bring leadership, skills and a passion to make their communities better places to live and work,” said Patrick Cronin, IEI’s assistant director for policy and programs.

“We have an opportunity to fill in the gaps,” Wilson-Parsons said of faith communities’ role in early childhood development, noting faith-based programs often provided reliability in communities when funding for state and local programs became inconsistent.

Seaside UMC knew they wanted to fill in some kind of gap for Sunset Beach’s children five years ago; funds and direction from IEI’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative (funded by The Duke Endowment) led them to create a six-week summer reading camp called STARS (Seaside Teaching And Reaching Students). The program, staffed by certified teachers and church volunteers, functions like a summer day camp for local elementary school students, providing activities like field trips, arts and crafts and swimming as well as reading help.

<strong>Lerlene Abernethy</strong>, a teaching assistant at the STARS reading camp, works with kids.

But Wilson-Parsons knows the church can do even more, and she attended the 2018 kidoNomiCs Forum to learn how. “I’m still trying to digest all the notes I took at the Forum. The more I heard there the more I realized I need to research,” Wilson-Parsons said. The Forum inspired her to reach out and coordinate with early childhood organizations around Sunset Beach such as Smart Start, she said.

For Ricky Hill, another faith leader luncheon attendee, the Forum was about creating connections as well. The community engagement coordinator with the Hinton Rural Life Center in western North Carolina left the Forum with a list of email addresses he’s already put to use, digitally networking with other faith leaders on topics like after-school programs and mental health services.

Ricky Hill

Hill attended the Forum because he “wanted to find out what was there, what I could learn and what I could bring back.” Hill’s relatively new to his position at Hinton, a historically UMC-associated nonprofit retreat and service center located in Hayesville, N.C., a small Clay County town of about 300 people located two hours southwest of Asheville. With no hospital, only three schools and rugged Appalachian terrain that can hinder even Internet access, the area’s remoteness often exacerbates early childhood issues.

“The slogan up here is that we’re about two hours from everywhere,” Hill said. But the area’s people are resilient and the Forum strengthened Hill’s resolve to research the feasibility of programs like a pre-K student mentoring program. One of the biggest points he took home from the Forum was what a huge effect early childhood development has on later student success.

The number of faith leaders at the Forum from around the state who cared so deeply about early childhood development in their communities also moved him, and reminded him of the faith community’s important role in early childhood development and communities as a whole.

“As a faith-based organization we look at the whole family: How do we lift them up and make them realize they can do something different and better for themselves?” Hill said.

Want to learn more about Thriving Rural Communities? Contact Kylie Foley, our rural faith communities fellow, at

—Beth Hatcher