By Laura Camby McCaskill
SUMMERVILLE—On the second floor at Stallsville United Methodist Church lives a new way for the church to be Jesus to hurting people in the world: Charis Academy.
Charis Academy is a private academy that Stallsville has been letting use their space for free for the past three years. The school helps children with mild cases of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other academic challenges experience learning in a safe and loving environment. It has grown from two students in its first year to 13 and is still growing.
And, said founder and head of the school JoDee Robinson, it’s because of the love and open arms of the church that their school—and their children—are thriving.
“Words cannot articulate it. It’s amazing! It is a God thing one hundred percent how this church, whether they see it or not, (is) directly ministering to families and children that are hurting or didn’t have a place to go,” Robinson said.
Robinson started the school to help her own son, 12-year-old Daniel.
“Peers can be a bit cruel when they pick up on the difference (in the children),” Robinson said. “We needed a place to provide for him on his level. People who see us now notice the change. Someone said it’s like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. We pray that we have that same effect on the families.”
Stallsville pastor the Rev. Robin Griffeth said God continually makes it possible for them to afford letting Charis stay without rent.
“We get as much as back as we give—we get to watch the miracles God creates every day in the lives of those children,” Griffeth said. “God is using them in miraculous ways.”
Griffeth said that when talking about church vitality, congregations frequently get asked whether their church would be missed if it were gone. Their partnership with Charis Academy has meant a resounding “yes,” Griffeth said.
“We love working with Charis and are grateful that God gave us the opportunity to partner with them,” she said. “Because of our relationship with Charis, we now have a unique place in the community where we help folks who have autistic family members.
“It expands the lives we can touch simply by letting them use our space.”
What is Charis Academy?
Charis offers academics, as well as activities taught by people in the community such as music therapy, art education and therapy, physical education and a drama class provided by a local nonprofit called Art Spot. In January they will start their first Spanish class.
It is similar to public school in many ways. Starting in August and ending the last week of May, Charis releases for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break. There are no half days, and in order to keep the educational calendar on track, teachers come to school a week before school starts and stay a week after it ends.
Charis Academy enrolls first through twelfth graders. There is a year-end ceremony with rewards for character traits, where they recognize the most improved and also recognize students for outstanding academic achievement.
One of the nicest things she’s witnessed is the kindness and sense of family among the students. Robinson said when they find out there is a new student coming, they all want to wait for him or her downstairs.
“The kids are absolutely amazing. They love each other,” Robinson said.
‘This is missionary work for me’
Robinson and the other teachers and supporters of Charis Academy feel great passion for their work and call it a ministry for them.
“This is missionary work for me,” Robinson said, noting she does not draw a salary from the school at all so they can keep tuition at a level that’s achievable for families. “If it’s for Daniel or a thousand more Daniels, we have to have something out here for our kids.”
Charis Academy also holds membership through the South Carolina Independent School Association so families can receive some assistance with tuition.
Currently, they occupy three classrooms, but Robinson hopes in the future to be able to have two more: one for high school and one for lower elementary.
Robinson said Stallsville UMC’s grace and love is so much of why they have blossomed as a school.
“It’s a place of living waters,” she said, offering hope and help during places of desperation.
Much of it comes from the loving heart of its congregation, but much also stems from the leadership of their pastor, Griffeth.
“Pastor Robin has a heart for outreach and community,” Robinson said. “She is an amazing and courageous woman. She comes to visit the children and they adore her.”
Robinson said Stallsville is following the Gospel and truly being the hands and feet of Christ to these families.
“Families are getting their life back and it’s a direct result of the church having the courage to allow us to start this ministry in their church,” Robinson said. “They can’t even see it, but what they’re doing is life changing, and it will have ripple effects on the children and families for generations to come, because they’ve given them hope.”