Photo Intern: Graham Robson (From Left) Ella Holland, Wyatt Doggett, Landon Retsky, and Mary Kathryn Nolan participate lifting a parachute in their recreation time at Shadow Brook's Vaction Bible School last week.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Heather Harbin is partial to popsicle sticks, pipecleaners, multi-colored beads, Kool-Aid and chocolate chip cookies.
With deft hands, she distributes child-safety scissors and construction paper, cotton balls, glue sticks and lots of paper towels to the children in her classroom.
These are her tools of the trade for one week out of every year as she steps into the role of teacher at her church.
She's one of thousands of volunteers from all over Gwinnett County who will lead local young people through five days of singing, reading, coloring and studying about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's an effort that transcends denominational boundaries known as vacation Bible school.
Harbin, a volunteer at North Metro Baptist Church, said she enjoys "sharing the message of the gospel with children, letting them know that God loves them no matter what."
The church children's minister, Tim Bailey, said sharing the gospel is the chief mission of VBS.
"A lot of these kids go to church here on a regular basis, but this is a good chance to reach out into the community as well for kids that don't usually get to come to church," said Bailey, a children's minister for more than 20 years.
Added Bailey: "Parents enjoy it because it offers their kids something to do while they're not in school, and kids enjoy it because it's just fun."
Seven-year-old Caleb Pierce, for one, is a fan of North Metro's VBS program.
Said Pierce: "I like snacks, watching videos in worship service and ... snacks. Did I already mention that?"
Snacks are a big part of vacation Bible school, said Susan Rowe, director of the program at McKendree United Methodist Church. "It's the kind of thing that stays with people for a lifetime," Rowe said. "Cookies and snacks and arts and crafts, fun stuff. We like for children to learn about Jesus, but we want the entire experience to be fun."
Rowe said adults often approach her after VBS and thank her. "They'll come up to me and say, 'I think I got as much out of this as the kids did. There was stuff I learned that I didn't know.'"
At McKendree UMC, Rowe oversees traditional vacation Bible school as well as "extreme" VBS for children in fifth and sixth grade.
Rowe said she grew up in the north, where VBS wasn't as widespread. "It was totally new for me when I came here," she said.
Zion Lutheran Pastor Nathanael Mayhew said, "Being in the Bible Belt, there's more of a focus on VBS. It's more a part of the culture here."
Added Mayhew: "It's an important opportunity to reach out to kids you don't often get to see. We fill up our church every year with little kids. That's the key for us, taking an opportunity to bring them in and teach them that there are good answers for the questions they have."
Sam Davis, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist in Dacula, said VBS "plants the seeds of the Gospel in the hearts and minds of kids, and that's absolutely vital. It introduces them to Bible teachings and Bible perspectives."
And one of the best ways to teach those perspectives, said Bailey of North Metro Baptist, is giving the children variety.
A three-hour session each day at the church includes snacks, crafts, worship rallies, Bible studies and recreation time. "We like to keep them on the go," Bailey said. "We keep them moving."
Zack Gibbs, 9, said he most enjoys the worship service and the videos, while Natalie Tyndall, 10, is partial to arts and crafts.
Josh Dunn, a 17-year-old volunteer at the church, watches the children dash and play outside. He works the recreation session. "It's a good opportunity," Dunn said. "I like helping the kids out."
Harbin said providing children with variety is key to keeping their attention: "You have to keep little hands busy."
Harbin said she enjoys teaching young children about the Gospel, because it teaches her how to live. "They just naturally believe," she said. "It's easier with the little ones. It reminds me that I should approach life that way."
Vacation Bible school sessions are held throughout June and July. Contact your local church for schedules.