The year was 1976 when Mike and Ruth Rhoades started volunteering with Covenant kids. You remember that, right? It was the U.S. Bicentennial! Jimmy Carter was president; Bruce Jenner won the Olympic men’s decathlon; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak formed Apple Computer; Emily Howell Warner became the first female pilot of a major U.S. airline; Rocky and A Star is Born were tops at the box office.
Forty-three years later, much has changed -- but not everything. A Star is Born is still popular, although it has had an update, and Mike and Ruth Rhoades are still volunteering with Covenant children.
Mike and Ruth joined Covenant in 1975 after being married there by founding pastor Carl Eaton in 1974. Mike explained, “My parents were going to church in Dallas when I was in first grade. Carl Eaton was studying the ministry there and my parents knew him.”
Flash forward a couple decades: “When I was in college, my mom was working at a church in California. She was asked for a letter of transfer for Carl Eaton. When she learned he was at Covenant, she said, ‘You have to go to Carl’s church.’”
Thus Mike and his girlfriend, Ruth, then students at the University of Texas, found Covenant and soon were married there. Ruth finished college in three years and kept her job at Sears while waiting for Mike to graduate. Both were sure they would move somewhere else for Mike’s job.
“We joined the church. We agreed to volunteer, but we told them we probably wouldn’t be here very long,” Ruth said.
“I was willing to move wherever I got recruited, and then I got hired by a company that was moving to Austin,” said Mike, laughing.
Toddlers and … Very Large Toddlers
The Rhoades’ first Covenant volunteer assignment was in the perceptual development class, where they taught babies from six months to three years old. “Mike got off the phone and said, ‘We’re going help keep kids in their chairs. It’s basically babysitting!’” Ruth said. “But after we did it, we were just enchanted.”
At that time, Mike and Ruth had been married only a year and didn’t have any kids. “The curriculum was really repetitive for us as adults, but it was exactly what the kids wanted,” Ruth said.
They were thrilled as they watched the kids progress in the perceptual development class. “I had a mother ask if we were teaching shapes. She said she pulled up to a yield sign and her son said, ‘Look Mommy, a triangle.’ The women inquired at her son’s preschool, but they said they didn’t teach shapes. She kept trying to figure out where he was learning shapes.”
After teaching the perceptual development class for about 10 years, Mike and Ruth started teaching sixth graders. “We had a little bit of a problem in the beginning,” Mike said, “and then we realized they were just very large toddlers. Like the toddlers, we just kept pouring it on and didn’t expect a response back.”
It wasn’t long afterward that the church received a number of donated computers. Nancy Marroquen, children’s director at that time, asked Ruth, a BASIC programmer, if she could figure out a way for the Sunday school students to use the computers.
“We had a mix of PCs and Apple computers. Any commercial software we found wouldn’t run on both,” Mike said. Ruth used BASIC to write programs for both platforms, introducing Covenant’s kids to hangman, word search and concentration.
That was the beginning of Adventures.net. Mike and Ruth have run the station for kindergartners through fifth graders since it began, they think, in mid ’90s.
Ruth said, “I remember we were in the big upper room in the old building. The patio was closed in. We covered the computers with blankets or sheets.” Thieves would break in, pull the blankets off the computers, only to put them back and walk away. “The computers were not high quality!” she said.
“Obviously, we’ve enjoyed volunteering with kids,” Mike said. “In a recent sermon, Jon (Wasson) talked about getting your call and sometimes the call is from somebody who wants you to do something for them, but it turns out to be your calling. I see a lot of that in what we do.”
“With the kids, I love seeing the ‘aha’ moment, when all of a sudden it clicks, and you know that they got it and you had a part in that,” Ruth said.
“Early on in the computer lab, Jack Skaggs was probably in fifth or sixth grade. We had gotten a professional game based on the life of David, but it would only run on one computer. We came up with a currency system and the kids could buy time to play the games. We also did skits to demonstrate the stories. Jack was in a skit, acting out a story from David’s life. There was something in the story that was in the game. He looked up and he looked over at me with surprise,” Ruth said.
“I just said ‘Gotcha! You didn’t know that you were actually learning!’” she laughed.
“It’s really amazing seeing the kids’ faces light up and seeing their understanding as we are teaching something. That gives us a lot of satisfaction,” Mike said.
Over the years, the Rhoades have had a front row seat to changes in Covenant’s computer lab for kids. “We’ve gotten smaller mice for small hands; we’ve gotten many computer upgrades and recently, we got touch screens since many kids are used to phones and tablets,” Mike said.
“The Rhoades are amazing!” Covenant Director of Children and Families Christy Milam said. “They need zero direction. They do so much extra and have so much knowledge from own research. We recently had a lesson on the widow’s coins. Mike and Ruth researched ancient coins so they could show the value of what she gave versus what the others gave. It’s really just above and beyond.”
Adventures.net powered off after this year’s programming ended. Mike and Ruth won’t be in front of computers anymore, but they will still volunteer with our kids.
“They will always have a place in our ministry,” Christy said. “The computer lab was their baby and they always insisted on signing up to teach the first rotation of the year. And they would come up on their off Sundays to train other people if they needed help.”
“They always serve when they can,” agreed Rachael McConnell, Assistant Director of Children and Family Ministry. “I can ask them to help on Friday and they are here Sunday. They are very dedicated.”
When Not Working with Kids …
Ruth and Mike are a power couple! Ruth just retired in May after more than 24 years at NXP – and the many iterations of what was once Motorola. Mike, who’s been retired for 10 years, was at Motorola before Ruth, retiring at 22 years with the company.
The couple commuted together for some of the time, getting their shop talk completed before they got home. “When we stopped commuting together, the kids commented that they could tell a difference in our conversations when we arrived home,” the couple recalled.
Mike and Ruth don’t limit their Covenant service to our kids. The couple also serves as Covenant’s communion coordinators for the 9:30 and 11 a.m. traditional services. For the better part of the last 12 years, they’ve set the table, gotten the elements, organized servers and cleaned up afterward. Both Mike and Ruth have been deacons and have served on Session. They even did the church newsletter in the mid-90s. But it seems their most constant and rewarding service at the church has been with Covenant kids.
“The most important job our generation has is to pass on the faith. We don’t need warm bodies in the room, we need people who are willing to be there with the kids and are willing to share their faith,” Ruth said.
Mike agreed. “I think our kids need to hear the stories of our faith, the stories of Jesus, to know where that faith comes from.”
If you would like to volunteer with Covenant’s Children and Family Ministry, contact Rachael McConnell at email@example.com. And don’t worry, Covenant is more than happy with a year commitment – or even just a week. A decades-long commitment is not expected. The Rhoades’ commitment is above and beyond. Thanks Ruth and Mike!