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They're driven to reach children

Kevin Vaughn stood inside the children's sanctuary at Oasis World Outreach modestly talking about his bus ministry.

For 11 years, every weekend without fail, Vaughn has come to the church on State Road 54 and prepared vans and buses for a journey into four low-income neighborhoods: three in Zephyrhills, one in Dade City.

On Saturday mornings, Vaughn and others load into four long, white vans about 9:30 to make their rounds, visiting children and their families, teaching the love of God and telling people about church. They pass out fliers and candy bars, give hugs and evoke smiles.

Michelle Axthelm, her two children, Kaci, 12, and Chase, 7, and Bill Strife rode with Vaughn one recent Saturday to visit children who regularly attend Oasis World Outreach.

"It gives us a chance to learn the kids and their families," Vaughn said of going to their homes.

On Sundays, they drive back to the neighborhoods to pick up the kids - sometimes as many as 140 - and take them to the children's service, which begins at 10 a.m.

"Sometimes the only thing that's consistent in their lives is knowing that we're coming on Saturday and knowing we're coming on Sunday," said Vaughn, his slow, Southern twang and cowboy boots evidence of his country roots.

He grew up near Leesburg in Lake County and works full time during the week as a lineman for Withlacoochee River Electric. He has three children, ages 17, 12 and 10, and his wife teaches at the church's religious school.

Oasis World Outreach, a member in the Pentecostal Church of God fellowship of churches, is unlike stereotypical evangelical ministries, church administrator Dawn Haas said.

She leads the children's service on Sunday in a sanctuary designed for kids. A giant, brightly colored butterfly hangs over a stage area. Rows of blue kid-size chairs fill the front of the room. Games are stacked neatly against one wall, and hamburger buns and jumbo jars of applesauce line another.

"We wanted something different," said Haas, who has been with the church for 14 years. Her Sunday programs have included eating an onion to teach that sometimes the word of God may be hard to swallow. "Everything I do I make into a Bible story with a message," she said.

During the recent Saturday trip, Vaughn told stories of children whose fathers are in jail and mothers are away all night and sleep all day. Some of the families have moved four or five times within a couple of years, he said. The bus brigade visited a family one weekend, and the next the home was abandoned. He has seen one-room shacks with six or seven kids sleeping on the floor.

"We don't come to judge anybody," Vaughn said. There is no dress code at Oasis, he added. The children don't need church clothes, and shorts are okay, he said.

Some of the children have been aggressive. Those are the ones who need church the most, bus ministry leaders said.

"This is their only safe place, an oasis away from the storm," said Axthelm, the church school's assistant director who has been involved in bus ministry for seven years.

Twelve-year-old Jasmine Furrow came out of her mobile home as soon as the van pulled up, a smile on her face. She has been attending the church and getting regular Saturday visits since she was 3, though most kids are at least 6 when they start. The bus ministry has maintained contact with Jasmine when her family has moved.

"We have a good church," she said. "If I don't go I'll cry."

The sixth-grader at Raymond B. Stewart Middle School also helps at the church school.

Other area churches have bus ministries, but Vaughn said he goes into some areas that other churches won't.

"Every child we pick up has a story," he said.

Many of the kids they see on Saturdays are regulars, but ministry leaders also do "cold calling,'' looking in unfamiliar areas for evidence of children, such as bikes and play equipment in the yard. Vaughn said he has had doors slammed in his face, but "the majority of people are very receptive."

Some parents are skeptical. "You have to build a relationship with them first," Axthelm said.

They encourage the parents to come to church as well, but many choose not to.

Tammy Fantaski said her son Dylan, 13, used to resist going to church. Once there, he would throw chairs and was violent. A student at West Zephyrhills Elementary School, he has attended church for a year, and it has made a big difference in his life, his mother said. Fantaski said she considers going to church but hasn't tried it yet.

Every Sunday, Dylan stands outside and waits for the bus to come.

"They get attached to us, attached to the church," Strife said.

The bus passed Crestview Hills, an upper-middle-class community in Zephyrhills that leaders have started to add to their route. Axthelm said Crestview is more of a challenge than some of the lower-class neighborhoods.

"More affluent people feel like they don't need anything else in their life," she said.

The bus didn't stop in Crestview this day, instead pulling into a nearby neighborhood where sister and brother Rhea and Tony Donatello lived. The blond-haired duo talked to the group outside their front door about church.

"It's fun. You get to learn a lot," said Rhea, dressed in a flowing pink skirt and matching shirt.

She is in sixth grade; Tony is in eighth. They are sure to be ready for church each Sunday.

"We get ourselves up. I set the clock," Tony said.

Vaughn and the others pile out of the van into the heat of the day. Though it's now lunchtime, Vaughn has a big job ahead of him readying the buses for the next day's mission to pick up the children. He seems undaunted as he fulfills what he considers a calling.

"We tell them Jesus loves them, because we might not have them for that long," he said.