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Sunny Days Preschool to close due to declining enrollment

WORTHINGTON — A lot of changes are taking place at the Covenant church along South Shore Drive in Worthington.

Formerly known as First Covenant, the church bears a new name to better fit its mission and presence across from Lake Okabena. Last summer, the membership gave unanimous approval to rename their place of worship Living Waters Covenant. Though registration of the name change has yet to be formally approved by the state, Pastors John and Kris Stewart say new signage is anticipated to be in place by late spring to reflect the name change.

Meanwhile, the church has made the difficult decision to close Sunny Days Preschool, the Christian-based early childhood education program it has sponsored for the past 31 years. The morning preschool program for children ages 3-5 has seen a decline in enrollment since the state began funding all-day, every day preschool. Area parents now have the option to enroll their children in a free preschool — with free transportation — offered by the Brewster school district.

At one time, Sunny Days had up to 80 children enrolled in its preschool program. Today, enrollment is at 29.

Operating from 8:45 to 11:15 a.m. makes transportation an issue for working parents, and Kris noted that parents still have to pay for daycare when their child is at the preschool. She said a team of church members considered other options, including expanding Sunny Days to an all- day, every-day program. Economically, it just wasn’t feasible.

“Largely the demographics are changing and the idea of preschool is changing,” Kris said.

“We feel the program is in a good place right now, but we see the change in demographics,” added John. “We didn’t want the program to fizzle out — we wanted it to end with still a very positive message about Sunny Days.”

The last day for Sunny Days students will be May 31, and the Stewarts say church leadership is still discussing options for the space. The preschool room was constructed, along with a couple of classrooms and new restrooms, just prior to the Stewarts arrival in Worthington in 2004.

Vonnie Johnson, the wife of the church’s previous pastor, was instrumental in getting the program started in 1987. For the first 15 years, the program was located in the fellowship hall, so the furnishings had to be set up each Sunday night and removed each Friday afternoon. If there was a funeral during the week, preschool was cancelled.

The soon-to-be vacated space provides the church with some options.

“We’ve been working through some leadership and mission emphasis transition,” shared John. “We want to make sure the team is tasked with how to use the space to best fulfill that mission.”

A celebration of Sunny Days is planned during the church’s May 5 service, at 10:30 a.m. Past Sunny Days students and teachers will receive special invitations.

Currently, the preschool is led by one teacher and one paraprofessional.

While the fate of Sunny Days is a more recent development, the decision to change the church’s name has been discussed for a while.

“Like any church, we’ve been looking at different ways to do ministry more effectively,” said John.

When the church decided it was time to update its website, it made sense to incorporate it with a name change.

“There’s always been people in the past asking what First Covenant means,” said John. “Why First? It doesn’t describe anything.”

A year and a half ago, the church adopted a new mission statement: “Encouraging the journey to Christ and Nurturing the Walk with Christ.” With that, the Stewarts were hopeful of a name change to better reflect the church.

They met with the church’s leadership team and looked at Bible verses that correspond with the church’s mission statement. They were drawn to the statement that Jesus is the Living Water.

“We were also focusing on with the name, what people who’ve been coming to church here say — (that) they feel refreshed and it’s given them encouragement. We wanted to lean into that,” John said. “And then with our proximity to the lake, we came to the point that we wanted to present Living Waters.”

The daughter of a church board member, who has her own graphic design business, took the words and began designing logos, and longtime stakeholders in the church were presented with the rationale for the name change in small group discussions.

“Across the board, everybody loved it,” John said.

This is the fourth name change in the history of the Covenant church in Worthington. The church was founded as the Swedish Mission Friends Association; it’s first location at the intersection of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. It later became the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, and it was changed to First Covenant Church in the late 1950s. The church has been at its present location at 1645 S. Shore Drive since 1960.

Services are at 10:30 a.m. Sundays, with the summer worship beginning at 9:30 a.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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