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I Can Only Imagine

I Can Only Imagine

How Rhonda Dahlin mobilized her church to transform a failing school and provide life-changing support after Hurricane Ian
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • April 20, 2023

In August 2020, Rhonda Dahlen ’97 was meeting with the missions team at Riverside Church in Fort Myers, Florida, where her husband, Peter ’97, was a new pastor. Rhonda said she thought the church could transform the community by partnering with a local school—but which one?

Sarah Wechter piped up: “Let me tell you, I have the school that we can partner with.” A fourth-grade teacher at Edgewood Academy, located 11 miles from the church, she said many of the children at the Title 1 school were Latin American immigrants or undocumented students who relied on free or reduced lunches. They were going hungry, especially on weekends, and COVID restrictions only made things worse.

“How are these kids going to get fed?” Sarah asked.

“She was overwhelmed,” recalls Rhonda, who also served as a coach and consultant for the missions agency TMS Global. Rhonda agreed to tour the school and surrounding neighborhood the next day. As they visited the school and drove around the community, Rhonda was shocked to see the extreme poverty and hear the heartbreaking stories, such as a student’s dad who had been shot.

“I didn’t know this existed in Fort Myers,” says Rhonda, who thought of the city as a place for retirement and trips to the beach. “You just don’t see all of these other pieces.” Now she felt an overwhelming sense of “you have to do something!” Rhonda called the executive pastor and got permission to lead some efforts on behalf of Riverside. She visited the new principal, Angela Nader, who “basically flung the doors wide open to us” for an outreach opportunity that only God could orchestrate.

Partnering with a school

When Rhonda found out that 150 kids weren’t eating meals on weekends, she gulped, not knowing how the congregation would react to the great need. So Mrs. Nader said, “If you give me 35 weekend food bags, I’ll find the 35 hungriest kids.” Rhonda agreed to provide 35 bags by the weekend.

She started a food collection drive at the church. The response was overwhelming. They collected enough nonperishable food to feed 150 kids for a month. She distributed the food bags on a Friday, telling the principal, “God wants us to feed the numbers you’ve given us.” Since then, once a month, Riverside’s fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school classes assemble the food bags, which are distributed to students every Friday morning.

 

The school also struggled with poor attendance; every day 150 of the 500 students were typically absent. “I need some help,” Mrs. Nader told Rhonda. “I have initiatives, but I don’t have some of the means and ability to help carry them out.” Not only that, but in a state that offers families school choice, this elementary school was the least requested in the district, she revealed.

Volunteer support

Rhonda sprang into action. She challenged the church’s Life Groups (small-group Bible studies) to each “adopt” a teacher from Edgewood. Life Groups met a range of student and family needs, sponsored coffee and donuts for the teachers, and offered encouragement and support at special events.

Volunteers from Riverside Church began tutoring, reading to the kids, and eating lunch with them. The school gave Rhonda a classroom to use as an office, clothing/uniform pantry, food pantry, and store. Teachers could pick out snacks for their students, and kids could shop for toys with their Eagle Bucks earned for positive behavior. Riverside supported the students with “Star Parties” for good attendance and gave appreciation gifts to the teachers.

 

Riverside also sponsored a backpack drive to kick off the 2021–22 school year. The church purchased 500 backpacks, and church members filled them with school supplies for Edgewood students. They hosted a community movie night at the school in November 2021 attended by nearly 500 people, and another successful movie night in January 2023. Before Christmas the students made gingerbread houses. At Eastertime, they filled thousands of eggs with candy for the annual Easter egg hunt at school. They also started a vegetable garden and asked students to help.

Dramatic difference

For the previous nine years the school usually earned a D grade from the Florida Department of Education for its overall performance, Rhonda says. Yet in just two years, the school’s rating rose to a B, just four percentage points short of an A and the largest increase in the district. Edgewood Academy was also recently honored at a national assembly in Texas for becoming a level-one Marzano high reliability school, indicating its safe, supportive culture.

In addition, by the end of the partnership’s second year, the school’s average absentee rate had plummeted from 150 kids missing per day to just 18. “What was amazing was that they were the only school in Lee County that had an increase in attendance,” Rhonda says.

 

“When you have people who are feeding kids, supporting teachers, and giving the resources so that the schools can do their attendance initiatives, it changes the life of the school,” Rhonda says.

Over time, the spiritual temperature also went up in individual lives. While volunteers were careful not to evangelize in a public school, consistently showing up on campus to love and support the school had an impact.

“All of a sudden, in very real ways, people who’ve never been to church were coming to Life Groups with people that are supporting their classroom,” Rhonda says. “We had a woman who had said, ‘I'll never go to church, I'll never have anything to do with religion.’ And she started asking spiritual questions. So it’s like, wow, only God can do that.”

I have a dream

Based on the good results at Edgewood, Rhonda started thinking about forming a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit that would train other churches to partner with local schools. “Just imagine if we had churches all over, intentionally engaged in transformational ways in schools,” she says. “I dream within 10 years, every school in Lee County that wants it would have a church partnering with it in a deep, meaningful way.”

In June 2022, God made it clear that Rhonda needed to lead the nonprofit, which she called the Imagine Initiative, based on Ephesians 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” She also sensed she should be ready to launch the Imagine Initiative in four months.

“God sent confirmation after confirmation,” she says, including having support from Riverside for the first year.

Rhonda left her position at TMS Global and was ready to launch the Imagine Initiative on October 1. Then Hurricane Ian rolled through Florida on September 28.

Help after the Storm

The category 4 hurricane struck Fort Myers with sustained force, knocking out power and demolishing neighborhoods along the coast and inland. The poverty-stricken neighborhood where many students lived, just around the corner from Edgewood Academy, was not spared. Damaged roofs and flooded houses forced some students to live in their family car or crowd in with relatives.

Sarah called Rhonda. “I’ve got 22 kids this year and 25 kids from last year, and their parents are desperate,” she told her. “They have nothing.”

Rhonda asked Sarah to compile a list of needs from the parents. Soon the requests started coming in: cleaning supplies, diapers, baby food, clothing, kids’ uniforms to replace ruined ones, healthy food for a diabetic student. With Rhonda’s quick coordination, Sarah filled her SUV and a friend’s minivan with church donations four days in a row and delivered them to her students’ grateful families.

Massive mobilization

Riverside Church also sent teams out to help students, teachers, and neighbors, eventually assisting 500 people with hurricane cleanup. When Susan Massie, a K-2 math coach at Edgewood Academy, posted on Facebook a need for boxes, Peter and Rhonda found their way to her flooded home with a load of boxes and plastic totes to hold her valuables.

 

About 50 Riverside volunteers also arrived at Edgewood to clear away branches and pick up debris, trash, and shingles from the school grounds. On October 19, 2022, when Edgewood was allowed to reopen after the hurricane, church members were on campus to assist with support.

“This is my 35th year of teaching, and I have never seen a church, business, organization, anyone do so much for the teachers and the staff as Riverside does,” Susan says. “They are absolutely amazing.”

From Moody to missions

Rhonda says she’s used her Bible and Intercultural Studies training from Moody “nonstop.” She first went to Moody because she thought God was calling her to be a single missionary in Kenya. Then on day two of her freshman year, she met Peter Dahlin—“and I’ve yet to be to Kenya,” she says with a laugh.

Peter and Rhonda married at Christmas of their sophomore year. God called Peter to be a youth pastor in the US—their first church was Rhonda’s home church in Nebraska. Rhonda started leading local missions at the church and again at their next church in Alabama. Then she joined TMS Global, traveling to churches across the US to remind congregations of their mission call.

“It was not what I expected, but it’s exactly who God created me to be,” she recalls. “He knew what He was doing when He sent me to Moody.”

Show up again and again

When it comes to working at Edgewood, Rhonda hopes other churches will follow Riverside’s lead and get involved in a school. Already, she’s communicating with churches to partner with schools that have been hearing about the significant improvement in retention at Edgewood and want help too.

The key is simple. “We didn’t lead with programs, we didn’t make any huge dynamic things,” Rhonda says. “We just kept showing up and saying, ‘What do you need?’ And we delivered what they needed, and we did it in a relational way. I would say show up again and again and again. And focus on relationship.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.