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Film spotlights Roosevelt-SouthLake bond

West Linn volunteers part of a growing 'UnDivided' movement


by: COURTESY OF SOUTHLAKE CHURCH - Roosevelt High School students and SouthLake Church volunteers formed an unlikely partnership over the past five years, which is the subject of a new documentary called 'UnDivided.' SouthLake volunteer Laurie Fowlkes hugs two students here.It all started with a simple cleanup day at a school.

Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association in Beaverton, called leaders at West Linn’s SouthLake Church in the summer of 2007 to ask if they’d like to participate in a one-day service event involving 10 local churches and schools.

SouthLake leaders immediately said yes, but requested they take on Roosevelt High School exclusively.

“We’ll be much more successful at this if we own it,” Kristine Sommers, SouthLake’s outreach director at the time, recalls thinking.

Based on the size of the congregation and their past service projects, she figured about 800 volunteers would turn out. Some say 1,500 showed up, but Sommers, who took a careful headcount, says it was just about 1,000.

Still, the response was bigger and more heartfelt than anyone expected — and it was the start of what turned into a five-year partnership between SouthLake and Roosevelt that is the subject of a new documentary film, “UnDivided.” The film has its first screening at the Bagdad Theater next month.

“Something happened that first day,” Sommers says. “So many people came up to me saying we can’t stop here, we need to do more. It was very catalytic for SouthLake because we’d never had that kind of ongoing local outreach... . Now it is what defines us, to a great extent.”

In the years since, SouthLake has kept a daily presence at Roosevelt, with about 75 core volunteers coming in regularly to work on various projects. First was a giant clothes closet for students, which also opens to St. Johns residents the second Tuesday of each month. About 350 people come through each month.

Volunteers help sort the collection at least three times per year, and will soon reorganize it again since someone just donated $20,000 worth of clothing racks.

SouthLake volunteers also created a fully stocked food pantry at Roosevelt, started a student mentoring program, gave away Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and food baskets and holiday gifts. And they rallied their community to pack the gym and stadium for massive showings of support at Rough Rider basketball and football games.

“A lot of people think you have to go overseas to do a mission trip, to make a huge difference,” says Heather Huggitt, SouthLake’s outreach coordinator, who took over for Sommers and has been based full-time at Roosevelt for the past two and a half years. “This was a different concept, look in your backyard at a local school.”

All of the attention helped spur Nike to donate football uniforms and sponsor the $3 million Theodore Roosevelt Athletic Complex project, which SouthLake helped by raising funds. The project, which has been completed, includes a new turf field, track and stadium built with the community in mind.

During the TRAC project, a SouthLake couple who own an apparel company called Righteous Clothing found their own way to pitch in. They started a sweatshirt project: for every navy Roosevelt hoodie sold at SouthLake, three would be donated to Roosevelt. They ended up outfitting all 850 Roosevelt students and 100 staff members.

Huggitt says the partnership has been more than gratifying for SouthLake volunteers.

“These kids totally changed my life,” she says.

Despite being different races, different ages, from different walks of life, Huggitt says she and other volunteers have become friends with the students, giving each other nicknames and helping shift their perspectives about life.

“I haven’t had to worry about food being on the table or wearing shoes with holes in them ... but they don’t let it break their spirit,” Huggitt says. “It’s just a good reminder: life is truly about love and relationships, and all the other stuff is just extra.”

‘Loving through service’

About 2 1/2 years into the partnership, just around the time Sommers moved to Los Angeles, the documentary film effort began.

Jeff Martin, a longtime SouthLake member, was at a service and heard Roosevelt assistant football coach Neil Lomax talk about his own transformation at Roosevelt.

Martin thought it would make an amazing feature film.

So he and his partner at Lightning Strikes Entertainment, Dan Merchant, wrote a script for a film. The pair had made the humorous documentary “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers,” in 2008.

Martin tapped his son, Sam Martin — a songwriter for Maroon 5 in Hollywood — to direct the documentary.

The film “UnDivided” was born, and is just the start of what Sommers hopes will be a national movement.

In the weeks after the Feb. 17 screening at the Bagdad Theater, the film will show in church communities in Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Orlando.

Sommers and Martin are working on an initiative they call “Be UnDivided,” which they eventually want to turn into a nonprofit.

The “Be UnDivided” website goes live on Feb. 18, offering resources and inspiration for churches to become involved in their school communities in much the same way.

There will be free online content to guide the churches through the planning for projects like their clothes closet, sweatshirt project, food pantry and other efforts. There also will be lists of materials needed and descriptions of volunteer positions.

As they gather steam, Sommers wants to include stories from other communities, as church-school partnerships take shape.

There are already some “wildfires” among church-school partnerships, she says. “Our dream is to fan those flames.”

Many have questioned the role of a church in a public school, and Sommers says it’s been well vetted and declared constitutionally sound, as long as clear lines are drawn.

According to Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center, schools must not be biased in their choice of partnering with one church or another; there must be equal opportunity. There can be no proselytizing. And there cannot be any program requiring students to attend the church.

“We think there is good news in being there, in loving through our service and keeping our mouths closed,” Sommers says. “That’s a key part of our curriculum.”

Adds Huggitt: “We’re not there to sing Christian songs or say ‘Jesus loves you.’ “

In fact, she’s had to stop volunteers who might innocently start talking about a church service while at the school.

Skeptics have come around, she says, seeing that SouthLake is not just a drop-in project but about building relationships with Roosevelt students through good times and bad.

Sommers says opportunities for church-school partnerships are too huge to pass up, here and elsewhere.

“It breaks your heart to see how a kid’s education future can be tracked by their zip code,” she says. “It is not right, it is a social justice issue. We’re hoping church involvement can help address the needs. We hope there will be a tipping point where there are more sweeping changes in the educational system.”