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On a bright spring morning, as the golden sunshine streamed through the windows, Lola Nelson read from a book called The Cherry Blossom Tree.
A group of slightly bouncy preschoolers listened as attentively as they could in the basement-level classroom of Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg.
"They're an active group," Mrs. Nelson said with a smile.
The book by Jan Godfrey and Jane Cope was not just about cherry trees; it was about life, love, death, God, and heaven, as its subtitle reveals: A Grandfather Talks About Life and Death.
Mrs. Nelson wants the toddlers who attend her "Story Time with Lola" to not only be entertained, but to learn about life and spirituality in class.
"There's a need for kids to interact in a Christian environment," she said. "They get to know each other. The little ones get used to sitting still and picking up. And it gives mom a break."
Mrs. Nelson will be honored today and tomorrow by Zoar for her 25 years of service to the church, where she is the director of lay ministries.
"I don't know what they're doing," she said of the celebration. "I'm a little nervous - usually I'm the one planning something!"
Mrs. Nelson, 63, and her husband, Walter, moved from Port Clinton to the Toledo area in 1971 with their three children and visited Zoar at a friend's invitation.
"I knew we wouldn't be just sitting in the pews," she said. "I started teaching Sunday School in 1974 when my youngest daughter was 2 - and I haven't stopped."
She chooses stories that are inspirational or directly based on the Bible. She tries to find books that fit the season, and when the weather is nice takes the children outside for story time.
"One of my favorite things is to make a circle of yarn and have the children look for things inside the circle. Sometimes we'll use a magnifying glass," Mrs. Nelson said. With rock collecting one of her hobbies, Mrs. Nelson keeps an eye open during these outdoor sessions looking for colorful rocks to add to her collection.
After she finishes reading a story, Mrs. Nelson leads the children in making crafts. On a recent visit, the toddlers used green crayons to draw trees on white paper, then glued on tiny red paper "cherries" and green leaves.
After craft time, the children wash up and are given a snack. Two boys who refused to clean up were informed that because of their disobedience, they would be the last ones to get their grapes and cookies. Mrs. Nelson's gentle rebuke brought tears, briefly, to the eyes of one 3-year-old.
The number of children who come to story time can range from six to more than 12, and the age range is 2 1/2 years to kindergarten.
But Mrs. Nelson is known to make exceptions.
Lydia Clark, for example, a joyful little brunette who walked around the classroom with one sneaker on and one sneaker off, is only 18 months old.
"She squeezes in because she's my granddaughter," Mrs. Nelson said.
During the summer, when regular school is out, "graduates" of story times past are invited to participate, and some older kids come to serve as Mrs. Nelson's helpers, passing out snacks or taking children to the restrooms when needed.
As the full-time director of lay ministry at Zoar, which has about 2,500 members, Mrs. Nelson not only works with preschoolers but oversees a number of church programs, including the "Young-at-Hearts" senior citizen ministry, small groups, and the Stephen Ministry, which focuses on meeting the needs of people on a one-on-one basis.
Mrs. Nelson has been hosting Story Time with Lola every other Friday morning for more than two decades, and some of the toddlers she now reads to are children of former Story Time participants.
"It's a family tradition," said Ashley Wilhelm, 26, of Bowling Green, whose two children, 4-year-old Dylan and 22-month-old Brynn, attend the story sessions.
"It's wonderful to know that Story Time is here and my children are learning about God. And it's nice to know that Lola is still here for them," Mrs. Wilhelm said.
The next Story Time with Lola will be at 9 a.m. Friday at Zoar Lutheran Church, 314 East Indiana Ave., Perrysburg. Information: 419-874-4346.
- David Yonke