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Takin' It to the Streets

Simon Presland

The Winner's Circle outreach is changing the lives of children and an entire community in Windsor, Ontario

Calling all winners, it's time to gather 'round. Calling all winners, it's time for the Winner's Circle!"

It's Saturday morning, and Stacey Quinlan issues a call that's become familiar to boys and girls at three parks in Windsor, Ontario. Within minutes, over 50 children race from homes and playgrounds to join the festivities. For the next hour, kids from ages 3 to 13 are treated to nonstop action for the body, soul, and spirit.

In two years, the Winner's Circle has become Windsor's most successful children's outreach. Its volunteers reach people in a predominantly Muslim district, in a low-income neighborhood, and in a middle-class subdivision.

Start your engines, and follow along to learn more about this ministry from the start to finish line.

START YOUR ENGINES

The idea for this multicultural ministry sprang from the hearts of Windsor Christian Fellowship's children's church leaders, Rob Quinlan and Frank Krall in 1999. Together with their wives, Stacey and Sherri, they wanted to take a Sunday school program into their community. After much prayer and planning, a community Easter egg hunt (used as a pilot project for the Winner's Circle) exceeded their wildest expectations and confirmed that they were moving in the right direction.

"We all have a passion to reach kids for Jesus," says Frank, father of three. "And we wanted to take this desire into the roads and county lanes of our community, in accordance with Luke 14:23."

"We held the Easter party in April 2000 in an area populated by first-generation Muslims," says Rob. "The possibility of an unresponsive audience would test our resolve to bring the gospel to the streets."

The initial plan they followed for the Easter program was the plan they'd later implement for the Winner's Circle program. After approaching the city's Parks and Recreation Department in March with the plans and permit applications, Frank toured different parks until he felt satisfied that God was directing them toward Crowley Park on the west side of Windsor. Next, he met families and became familiar with the area. The Quinlans and Kralls then educated their volunteers about the culture they'd encounter.

"It's important to understand customs and traditions," says Frank. "Pork is forbidden for Muslim people, so we only served all-beef hot dogs. A few parents asked for the packages and were pleased with what they read. The Apostle Paul said he had become all things to all men in order to save some ( 1 Corinthians 9:22), and we wanted to follow his example."

At 2 p.m. on the day of their Easter program, the Easter egg hunt began. The volunteers set up registration and game tables, secured a stage, and beckoned children over loud speakers to join the fun. For the next two hours, children registered for prize drawings, participated in games, and listened intently to Bible stories and object lessons. The actual Easter egg hunt was divided into age categories so all children received a fair share of candy. When the fun wound down, Rob gave a simple message proclaiming God's love for all and asked if anyone would like to become a Christian.

"We couldn't believe the response," says Stacey. "Five hundred kids had registered, and over 350 responded with a show of hands! We passed out hundreds of New Testaments that day and praised God for his goodness."

LET'S GO RACING

Back at Windsor Christian Fellowship, the Kralls and Quinlans quickly moved to follow up on the success of their trial program. Since Windsor is the automotive capital of Canada, the team chose a racing theme and christened their new endeavor the Winner's Circle. They called their volunteers Team Victory and established a set of "racing rules" as guidelines for the children to follow.

"Every kid is a winner in God's eyes, and our message is 'You can win in the race of life,' " says Sherri. "Team Victory has smaller groups called Pit Crews, and each person wears a golf-style shirt with our logo on it."

God's hand was in the selection of the racing theme as in many other decisions. When Frank attended a NASCAR event, he received a Victory Bible containing pictures of Christian drivers. Then upon close inspection of a car transporter, he saw a black and white winner's circle tiled on the floor. And the various mechanics' tools reminded him of his own Winner's Circle spiritual "toolbox" containing Scripture verses, songs, and powerful teaching tools that the team used to repair and maintain children's lives. When he brought these ideas back to the group, they enthusiastically embraced the additional theme-related ideas.

By July 2000, the weekly outreach was ready to begin. But in order to make this a regular Saturday morning event, Team Victory needed more equipment.

HAULING THE GOOD NEWS

Frank and Sherri learned of an inner city children's outreach called Operation Stitches. The program uses enclosed trailers rather than buses to house equipment. The Winner's Circle leaders decided to do the same.

"Our enclosed 20-foot, dual-axle trailer is practical and dependable," says Rob, father of four. "It can be left in one spot or pulled by various vehicles."

"The money came from our 1,500- member congregation. After hearing of the Easter egg hunt's success and our vision for this outreach, the people willingly gave more than we needed. The extra money was used to outfit the trailer and buy enough prizes, food, and toys to give us a good start."

The trailer was custom-made to meet the ministry's needs. One side folds down into a 7x16-foot stage that's used for puppets, Bible stories, and object lessons. The trailer also houses a built-in sound system, portable generator, and prize boards. The inside walls are decorated with cartoon racing figures, and the Winner's Circle logo is painted across the trailer's shell in bright yellow letters on a black and white checkered background.

CHOOSING A PIT CREW

As every children's ministry leader knows, volunteers are the backbone of every successful outreach. But true ministry only happens if people willingly support their leaders. So the Winner's Circle chooses volunteers based on their "armor bearer" mentality. This armor bearer concept comes from ancient Israel. People who carried the armor of warriors were called armor bearers. They willingly put aside personal agendas to encourage and protect the warriors.

"Frank and I learned this concept in Bible school," says Sherri. "Many people want to be in the ministry, but few really desire to serve. As armor bearers to Rob and Stacey, Frank and I serve them in any capacity needed. We help keep the trailer stocked, coordinate schedules, and do whatever else is necessary so they can oversee the entire outreach. Rob and Stacey are our leaders, and we need to be role models for the rest of the team."

When volunteers sign up to be part of Team Victory, each person is fully aware of the required commitment. From June to September, every Friday night and Saturday morning are spoken for. When a team member is on vacation, other volunteers perform more than one job. Because of the time sacrifice required, the Quinlans and Kralls make the outreach a family affair.

"Many workers participate alongside their spouses and kids," says Stacey. "We have daughters on the dance team, sons helping out with games, and both participating with puppets or interacting with the children. This serves a two-fold purpose: We aren't neglecting our families, and we're learning together what ministry and selfless giving are all about."

HITTING THE STREET

To get the neighborhood of Crowley Park ready for the outreach each week, Team Victory members knock on doors on Friday nights throughout the summer and talk with parents and children. Each team member briefly explains the Winner's Circle program and then hands each child a registration card and a piece of gum (with the parent's permission, of course).

Team Victory understands that not everyone is ready for the Winner's Circle. "Getting to know each family is important," says Frank. "But we have a motto that says, 'Don't bruise the fruit.' If someone isn't receptive, then we smile and say, 'Thank you' and go on to the next house."

These brief meetings give insight into needs families might have, such as food or clothing. Many families lack these necessities, so Windsor Christian Fellowship's benevolent ministry comes to the rescue. God also intervened in one case with a miraculous provision of furniture.

"Shortly after we started, a congregation member was talking to a lawyer at a local health club," continues Frank. "The lawyer was closing an estate, and the family didn't want anything from the house. When told of the Winner's Circle, the lawyer arranged to have everything bequeathed to us. We quickly distributed about $5,000 worth of furniture, and to this day we have household goods donated and distributed on a regular basis."

On Saturday, July 5, 2000, the first Winner's Circle call went out at Crowley Park. Within minutes, children scrambled over with registration cards and scurried about playing games while music played over the sound system. When Bible story and object lesson time came, the kids sat down on tarps.

With much of the teaching centered on morals (don't covet your neighbor's Game Boy video games) and family values (respect your mom and dad), it was easy to get the community to buy in. Cultural centers and grocery and toy stores willingly donated food and prizes. Even nonprofit organizations donated money to help defray the costs.

"During the summer, we also applied a principle I learned from working with kids," says Frank. "There's always a 'child of influence.' He or she is a leader in the making and can easily make or break an outreach. At Crowley Park, it was a boy named Hussan Bazzi. With Hussan's help, we quickly had over 50 kids in regular attendance."

When it came time to wind down the Winner's Circle at the end of that first summer, volunteers wanted to leave on good terms and let the children know the outreach would return the following year.

"We really felt impressed to do something special," says Rob. "After discussing ideas with our church leadership, we settled on a back-to-school bash. Thanks to the generosity of local businesses and benevolent individuals, we handed out 98 backpacks full of toys and school supplies on our final day at the park."

Thanks to press releases sent to local newspapers and radio and TV stations, the day became a media event with local politicians lending support. Phone calls poured in the following week, and donors pledged enough money to repeat the back-to-school event in 2001.

The Winner's Circle team invited hairdressers and dentists to the event. "We wanted these kids to look and feel their best for their first day back to school," says Rob.

MOVIN' ON

Over the winter of 2000, the Quinlans and Kralls expanded their Winner's Circle vision to include two more parks. This major undertaking called for additional workers, prizes, and food. The staff reorganized schedules and raised up new leaders. After much prayer and consultation with church leadership, they added Drouillard and Devonwood parks.

The new parks were chosen for their proximity to Windsor Christian Fellowship and Crowley Park. All three were within one-half hour of the church and 20 minutes from each other. A change of venues also meant a change in demographics.

"The Drouillard Park area has many broken families," says Stacey. "The parents were suspicious of our motives when we initially set up, and it was hard for the kids to attend."

Devonwood Park was also unique because it's surrounded by middle-class families. The children had their own entertainment and weren't looking for anything new. But throughout the summer of 2001, area residents at both parks warmed up to the Winner's Circle. Attendance climbed to 40 at Drouillard and 35 at Devonwood.

"We'd like to see more kids, but we're still touching lives," continues Stacey. "After one program, a mother and child came up to speak with us." After Team Victory prayed for the mother and son, both chose to follow Jesus as their Savior.

To raise funds for the new park outreaches, Rob held barbecues at local soccer games and at different events around Windsor. They also set up a golf tournament as a yearly fund-raiser. A few members of the church still contribute monthly, including one grandmother who consistently gives $100. However, even though local merchants continue to support the outreach, meeting the increased expenses is an ongoing challenge.

"We're still using one trailer to cover three parks," states Rob. "So our Saturdays are very hectic. We meet at Crowley Park by 9:30 a.m., and we're ready to go by 10. After finishing at 11, we arrive at Devonwood by 11:30 and start at noon. At 1 p.m., we eat while on the move to Drouillard, set up at 1:30, and begin at 2. By 3, we start moving everything back to the church."

Knowing everyone is exhausted by the end of the day, Team Victory plans a weekly barbecue at someone's house. But by the next weekend, everyone is excited and raring to go again.

FACING THE FINISH LINE

Despite the demands the Winner's Circle makes on their time, the volunteers look at the outreach as a labor of love. Eager new leaders, such as Simon and Donna Hughes and their three children, are being trained to take over one of the existing park outreaches. A core group of six works at all three parks, with other volunteers rounding out each park team to 12 or 15 Team Victory members. The group is praying for two more trailers that'll help with schedules considerably. They're also considering adding a fourth park. And characters such as Go Get 'Em Goose and Believer Beaver are scheduled to join Mighty Mo the Moose -- the outreach's official adult-size mascot -- in the near future.

"We'd also like to bus the kids back to our church for a regular Saturday morning program in the fall and winter," says Rob. "At some point, we want to help moms and dads learn basic skills such as reading and writing, learning computers, writing resumes, and biblical instruction on raising their kids."

A local campground has also invited Team Victory to hold Sunday morning services on long holiday weekends. With hundreds of campers on site, the Winner's Circle has a ready-made audience of up to 400 kids. At a recent service, 150 children and 30 adults chose to follow Jesus as their Savior.

"God's hand is upon this ministry," says Frank. "So he already knows what we need and what lies ahead. It's our job to do what God's Word says: Love God first, then love our neighborhood kids by raising them up to be winners for God. As we continue to follow God's vision, we're assured that he'll send us provision."

Simon Presland is a free-lance writer in Essex, Ontario.

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