This is the fourth and last in a series of posts telling the story of Urban Scholastic Center through people involved with the ministry. Read the story of USC founder, Chuck Allen, here, or of Tre & Khrystal Coppage, USC indigenous missionaries, here, or of Kent Broddle, USC board member, here.
“God’s sure got a sense of humor,” Juris Gaigals told his wife, Jean, when he returned from a volunteer orientation at Urban Scholastic Center.
He had first heard about USC through a Bible study he attended. Working with inner city kids sounded like something he would enjoy since he’d been an inner-city kid himself in Milwaukee.
“This is gonna be fun,” he told Jean. “I’ll be down there playing ping pong and pool, shooting basketballs with these kids.”
As he sat in the presentation for volunteer involvement, he laughed to himself when he realized how wrong his assumptions had been. Chuck Allen, USC director, said, “You guys will be helping lead Bible studies.”
Bible study? Juris wondered. I have a tough time leading in prayer! Well…God wouldn’t have put me in this situation unless he wanted me to do it.
So, five years ago, Juris started volunteering at USC, helping kids with homework and leading them in a Bible study. A year later, Jean also began working at USC by helping in the nursery on Wednesday nights.
Now, Juris and Jean work together every Monday. They start at Mark Twain Elementary School around 1:30 p.m. where they help kids with reading homework. Then they go to USC for Life Enrichment where they lead young girls in Bible study and homework.
Juris’s personal experience has given him a special passion for working with kids from tough backgrounds.
“I was born at an early age,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I was born in Latvia and immigrated to the United States in 1949 through Ellis Island.”
A church group in Wisconsin sponsored his family, providing them with work and food. Juris’s father found work in Milwaukee, where Juris attended several large, inner-city schools. His family attended church only occasionally, but looking back, Juris sees God’s influence throughout his life.
“I had so many opportunities to go astray. I had free reign of everything – came home when I wanted, left when I wanted…. By the grace of God, he always pulled me back and said ‘no.’”
Juris graduated from high school and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he met Jean. His work eventually led him to Omaha, Nebraska and then to Kansas City.
“Were you born at an early age too?” Juris asked, turning to his wife.
“I was,” she answered, smiling.
Jean’s family background was quite different than Juris’s, however. She was the middle of seven children and the daughter of a man who started his own business.
“We weren’t wealthy, but we lived well. I went to a girls’ Catholic school…. We always went to church, and my parents were very devout. My mother was a good teacher, and my father was a good example.”
It wasn’t until later in life that Jean came to know God personally though.
When she and Juris moved their family to Omaha, Jean attended a Christian women’s club and discovered her need for a personal relationship with Jesus.
“I had all the head knowledge, but I didn’t have him in my heart,” she said. “Then when that happened to me, I started praying for Juris.”
“I had no bones about going to church,” Juris said. In fact, many of their friends never realized Juris wasn’t Catholic. But when the family moved to Kansas City, Jean suggested trying a new church. She’d been praying God would send Juris a friend who believed.
“What was really neat was that…he didn’t send him one friend. [Juris] went to Bible study, and he sent him a dozen men.”
It was through Bible study that Juris became a Christian.
Today, Juris and Jean are involved at their church. They live close to both of their married children and enjoy spending time with their six grandchildren. For a while, they volunteered at Mission Adelante, a Kansas City ministry to Bhutanese people. And, of course, they work weekly at USC.
At USC, Juris has the opportunity to say to kids, “I know what you’re going through,” and to influence their lives. But he also just enjoys being around them.
“The kids are just great,” he said. He has several favorite kid stories. One of them comes from when he went with a group of kids on a tour of the Capitol building in Topeka.
The tour guide asked the group, “Do you know what the state bird is?”
All of the kids waved their hands eagerly. “The Jayhawk!”
“No, it’s not the Jayhawk.”
One of Jean’s favorite stories came when she made 300 cookies to pass out at USC’s golfing fundraiser. The leftover cookies were given to the kids. When she came in the following Monday, she was swamped by 14 kids, all trying to hug and thank her for the cookies.
“I just get a lot of satisfaction out of working with them and having the opportunity to be part of their lives,” she said.
When Juris and Jean’s kids were young, Jean remembers saying to God, “There must be something else I can be doing.”
At the time, his answer was, “No, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing right now.
“Now that our family is raised,” Jean continued, “a little voice came back and said, ‘Now is the time to do something.’”
And so both she and Juris have.