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Growing from one session to seven sessions a week, and we still a waiting list!

My name is Paula Clarke and I am the Children and Family Worker at Grosvenor Church, Barnstaple. I am now in my seventh year of this role, but have been involved with the Noah’s Ark toddler group for more than 20 years as a volunteer mum.

We started to run one session a week back in September 1995 with a grant from the local council, some church money and a lot of enthusiasm! By January 1996 we had started a second session and we have continually added sessions to meet the demand. We now run seven sessions each week – and we still have a waiting list of more than 30 children!

Each session has a leader and we all meet at the beginning of each term to pray, plan and prepare the craft activities. We also try to meet at least once more each half-term and have a Facebook group where we are in constant touch with things about our sessions during each week. Good communication is key to the success of running so many sessions each week. We aim to run them identically – same timings, craft, story, etc. – but, inevitably, morning and afternoon sessions differ and different personalities bring different dynamics to a group.

Right from the start we wanted to include all the church parents in befriending those who are new to church,  and so we encouraged them all to attend Noah’s Ark. We don’t start new sessions until we have enough church volunteers, and we have more than 25 volunteers spread over the different sessions. Most of them then help prepare the 90 to 100 crafts we need each week. One drawback of running so many sessions is that the craft has to be able to be replicated easily over the week for every session. We can’t use fresh produce, for example, as it is too complicated to provide it for each session and what we do for one, we have to do for them all. We have a one-year rolling programme of key Bible stories with a two-year craft programme.

Over the years we have put things on for our mums pamper evenings, coffee tasting, meals etc. ­– and attendance varies. Facebook has helped. Many of our mums have joined our Facebook page and we communicate a lot through that – even posting useful parenting tips and encouragements. Each session also has its own group chat. It often triggers good conversations when we follow up something that a mum has posted during the week.

One of the great things for me is the continuity we see after children leave us and go to school. Many come back to our holiday club at Easter time and attend our children’s club we run every Monday evening. They continue the link with church and are very comfortable hearing Bible truths and talking about God.

I can’t say we have huge numbers that make that transfer from Noah’s Ark to a relationship with Jesus and church attendance, but we’ve never really set out with that in mind. We see ourselves as seed-sowers. Our basis for existence is 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

Society has changed greatly over the past 20 years but our original vision is, amazingly, still relevant today. We are open to change and continually seek God for his guidance for what comes next. Times and fashions change, but the basic needs of toddlers and their parents to come to know and love the Lord Jesus don’t, so we press on towards the goal set before us.