Ashley Bennett can’t wait for school to start this year … and she’s a middle school teacher!
A veteran of 14 years at Woodruff Middle School, she’s looking forward to meeting her new crop of seventh graders. But Bennett is also the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athlete’s Huddle leader, and she’s eager to see the amazing things God will do among the school’s 700-plus students.
Last year, a teacher who had been coordinating the Cubs for Christ group at Woodruff Middle changed schools, so Bennett began an FCA group to fill the gap.
“I had coached cheerleading and a dance team for about seven years, and I knew I had to give that up. My kids and their schedules are crazy, but I knew I wanted to do something,” she recalled. “So God just kind of plopped this in my lap.”
Two years ago, Bennett went on a mission trip to Uganda with her church — the Church at the Mill in Spartanburg, where she and her husband, Chris, now serve as disaster relief coordinators on its mission team. That trip was a pivotal event for her. “I think God was preparing me probably, and I didn’t even realize it,” she said.
“We joined the Church at the Mill and started getting really plugged in and feeling a tug to go and do missions,” she said. But after going, “it really hit me that I could go across the world and share my faith and invest that time, but then I have all these kids that I see every single day. What am I doing to further the kingdom here?”
FCA seemed to fit nicely since there was already a strong FCA group at Woodruff High School, led by one of Bennett’s former teachers, Lea Ann Skinner. “We didn’t have a fluid program that they [Christian students] could get plugged into in middle school and stay in until they graduate [high school],” Bennett explained.
“I am thrilled about the students who are already being exposed to the opportunities for our athletes, coaches and other believers to have Christian fellowship and build accountable relationships even before high school,” said Skinner. “We’re looking forward to seeing the impact Ashley’s excitement is bringing to Woodruff’s FCA.”
Reid Bowyer, FCA regional ministry advancement director for the Carolinas, also attends the Church at the Mill, formerly known as Anderson Mill Road Baptist. So naturally, “FCA just came and bear-hugged us,” Bennett said.
Local churches did, too. “I sent an email out and just asked for funding,” she said. “Our goal was to raise $500, and we literally had three times that given to us within two weeks from local churches. They’ve just continued to pour into us.”
That investment in reaching kids is paying off. About 30 kids attended FCA the first week. The next week, attendance doubled. Then the next week, it doubled again … and it has kept growing.
“So we moved,” Bennett said. “We were in a classroom, so we moved to the media center, and then we moved to the band room,” she added. With close to 200 kids coming, some still were being turned away because there wasn’t even a place to stand.
“So, we’ve branched off and created an eighth grade Huddle, which is kind of cool because it has helped them in making the transition by getting them connected before they move up to high school,” she said.
Bennett isn’t content, though. “We have almost 700 kids in our building. My goal — and I’ve told our principal this — is that eventually he’s going to have to give me the gym,” she said. “And he’s totally fine with that.”
While he can’t go on record in saying it’s one of the largest middle school FCAs, Bowyer said, “It’s very uncommon to have the type of participation that Woodruff Middle has had” in its first year. Emily Wireman now assists Bennett with programming as a Huddle co-leader.
The middle school years are formative in defining one’s identity and values, Bowyer noted. Obviously, FCA believes that Christ should be a part of that identity, he added. And, by providing a place for young people to see other students and adults who are living their lives for Him daily, FCA has an opportunity to help prepare them as future leaders in high school and on college campuses, he explained.
About 60 different speakers, ranging from Miss South Carolina, to a former Clemson football player, to a missionary from Uganda, have come to speak to the group at Thursday morning meetings before the school day begins. Area pastors, youth ministers and varsity football, basketball and cross country coaches have also spoken.
“It’s like the Holy Spirit has just come into that school, and He’s been moving,” she said. “I’ll tell you, it is not anything that we’ve done because there’s no way … every week, it’s just His perfect timing and the people that He’s placed there,” she said.
“We have had kids tell us, ‘You know, my parents don’t take me to church. This is my church,’ Bennett added. “This may be the only time they get to hear the gospel.”
Through generous donations from the community, the FCA has been able to offer a Bible to any student who wanted one, and it has hosted a breakfast for students at least once a month. More than 250 attended a “See You at the Pole” prayer rally.
“It’s just incredible,” Bennett said. “ It’s just awesome to sit back and see Him work.
“I did a video, and I just literally sat there and bawled because He has just been too good,” she continued. “I don’t know about [the number of] salvations, but I know I see kids leave with tears in their eyes, and kids tell me how much it means to them. So I know the Holy Spirit’s working.”
Seeing kids “huddle up” for prayer in a public school is pretty amazing, Bennett thinks. “I really would have to say that it’s changed the whole climate of our school, and I think most people at our school would agree,” she said. “[W]hen I walk in my classroom after being fed by all these people, it changes my perspective every day. I don’t think you can have that enough.”
To see students come to meetings, be discipled, and going out and discipling and leading others is “just amazing to watch,” she said, recalling a group of girls who initiated and led a devotion in a basketball locker room. “That, to me, is a powerful thing,” she said.
“I think a lot of people want to be negative about public schools (‘We need to put prayer back in the school,’ ‘We need the Bible, the Ten Commandments’),” she added.
“No, we need students who are on fire for the Lord in the school,” she said. “That’s what we need.”