love & safety at the Kids Café
Captains Herb and Miriam Rader are finding that God works in mysterious ways.
The corps officers at the Manchester, N.H., Corps grew up on the mission field in India and at first were wondering what to make of their assignment in Manchester, N.H. The Raders soon learned that it’s where the federal government assigns many refugees from other countries—giving the Raders exactly what they’ve always wanted.
“We keep asking to go overseas and it has never happened, but we come here and we have every single country,” Miriam says. “It’s been great. It’s been such a blessing for us.
“This is very much a mission field. It’s everything that you could possibly imagine. You’re dealing with current issues.”
The Manchester Corps is home to “Kids Café,” a wildly successful after–school feeding and community center program that is celebrating its 20th year. Miriam said many of the refugee children enjoy coming to the café and to the corps.
“There is a lot of crossover to the corps,” Miriam says, “more than there’s been for a lot of years. We probably have about 40 to 50 kids coming to church every Sunday on their own and they’re all out of Kids Café.
“In the last two years, we’ve enrolled 30 junior soldiers.”
Kids Café runs Monday thru Thursday from 5–7 p.m. for ages 7–12. Teen Night is Friday and Saturday from 6–10:30 p.m.
Bob Champagne, who as the community center director has led Kids’ Café since the beginning, says, “We started 20 years ago meeting one night a week with 12 kids and now we run six nights a week.”
Champagne said 110–120 kids will show up on a typical night. “We haven’t been under 100 for Teen Night all year,” he says.
Low–income housing surrounds the corps and most of the children walk to Kids Café from a six–block radius. Champagne said 97 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunches at the two elementary schools the program serves.
Fun and games
Champagne said 176 different dialects are spoken in the local schools. The most recent refugees are Iraqi Kurds, some of whom escaped dangerous conditions.
“We are a destination city for refugees for the federal government,” he says. “The diversity in this program is immense.”
There is also a poolroom and a computer lab with 28 computers. Captain Herb Rader has even taught some of the teens his video skills.
Champagne says, “There’s always something for the kids to do.”
Champagne, who grew up in the corps, said he encourages kids to stay in school and then to pursue college or the military.
Leaving a legacy
“I just think these kids all have a chance to find their way out of poverty,” he says. “My proudest day of the year is going to all the high school graduations and watching these kids graduate. That’s a great rewarding day.
“You can talk the talk, but you’ve got to walk the walk. You’ve got to be here for the kids and show them you love them. You’ve got to show them you care. Christ tells us to give back.”
Paul Fitzgerald, who has cooked for Kids Café for 19 years, agreed. “We see a lot of kids who are going on to be successful,” he says. “It feels good to be a part of this. A lot of kids who don’t have a good family background, they get morals here. If they don’t get it at home, they get it here.”
Kids Café depends on volunteers from the community, including local colleges.
“The interaction between the volunteers and the kids is pretty dynamic,” he says. “A lot of our volunteers are kids who grew up here.”
Finding a home
Among those returning to help out is Korum Roumraj, 20, a native of South Sudan who will soon go into the Air Force. Roumraj has been coming to Kids Café since he was 7 and now volunteers.
Another volunteer, Dustin Rivard, 23, started coming to Kids Café at age 6. He said the program gives kids “consistency” that they might not find at home.
“Everybody’s here and nobody leaves,” he says. “They’re always here if you need it. That’s what I got. I got a lot of consistency here. It’s just a happy environment.
“Being a volunteer is my way of giving back. I understand and know what a lot of these kids go through. It’s nice to be here for them.”
A safe place
Rivard grew up near the corps and, while his family wasn’t poor, “we didn’t have a lot of money and it was nice to come down and eat, use the facilities, and make a lot of friends.
“This is where they get to hang out and see each other and have fun and just be a kid for an hour and a half,” he says. “It takes a lot of these kids off the streets, especially the teens.”
Champagne said The Salvation Army is one of three “safe havens” in Manchester.
“The parents know this is a safe place to bring their kids,” he says. “They know us as a church. They know us as a safe place.”
That was important to Daisy Cruz, a parent who in 1999 came to the United States from Puerto Rico. She had little money and four kids, who all found a home at Kids Café.
“They were able to come here and play and be off the streets in a safe environment,” she says. “They were able to make friends and they learned how to help other kids in need.
“We would all come over here and spend evenings, then go home and do homework. Everybody here is like a family and they try to stay connected. My kids respect that.”
Her son, Luis Lopez, returns to volunteer.
“I learned as a kid that there’s always someone to help you here,” he says. “That’s the reason why I come back. I’m pretty grateful for having this place to come to when I was a child. It’s the way I give back.”
A prayer before the meal at Kids Café, is the full extent of the program’s spiritual emphasis.
“The church programs are open to the kids,” Champagne says. “I’ve actually had three kids who have come through Kids Café become officers.”
Captain Miriam Rader said she often eats dinner with the kids during Kids Café and invites them to Sunbeams and to the music, dance, drama, and timbrels programs at the corps, where Christ is freely shared.
“A lot of them are unchurched. We’re doing the ABCs of salvation (steps to accepting Christ) before we can enroll them as junior soldiers. You have to understand they’re new to church and they’re new to Christianity. A lot of the kids we get in church right now are from Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds.”
Rader said the parents come to special events, but not for church.
“They have no problem with letting us teach their kids about the Bible, which is great,” she says. “The Muslims won’t let you do that, but the Hindus and the Buddhists will.”
Miriam said girls from Nepal and India enjoy dancing. After she noticed them in the computer lab watching dancers in “Bollywood” films, she urged them to form a dance troupe.
“They started a dance group and pretty soon, we had 20 kids coming every Thursday,” Rader says. “They just started coming and they started bringing their friends.”
Rader says she believes in home visitation and has developed relationships with parents who call her when their children need something or are having trouble in school.
“I know where all the kids live who come to church,” she says. “I visit the families.”
“That was the old way we did it in The Salvation Army. We have to do things differently, and I get that. But at the same time, you can’t give up visitation. That is the key in getting the family to support what we’re doing.”
During a recent Kids Café, Sheri Davis, the corps sergeant major, was on hand to mingle in the bustling game room.
“They’re family,” Davis says of the children. “They come to church. It’s no longer Kids Café and the Salvation Army. Now it’s all just one big family.”
by Robert Mitchell