Let Me Introduce You to the Good Shepherd: How One Grace Alumna Launched a Children’s Ministry in Long Beach
It was Friday, Feb. 8, 2002. Sharalyn (Shaw BS 97) Croft and her assistant teacher, Christina Navas-Mondolo, showed up at Precious Lamb Preschool in Long Beach, California, just as they had for the past several months. After years of prayer and petition, advocacy and action, the preschool was open to serve children and families in crisis. While community leaders were certain this would meet a great need, the preschool had been open for several months, and not a single child had walked through its doors.
However, on a Friday, two children arrived. Their names, Angel and Savan (pronounced seven, God’s number of completion), were a reminder that the good Shepherd had a perfect plan for this brand new children’s ministry.
The Training Years
Croft had been following the Shepherd for nearly all 25 years of her life. Born and raised in Long Beach, California, she was an active part of Charis Fellowship churches. During her childhood, Croft attended Los Altos Grace Church, where she was dedicated as a baby by pastor Dr. Donald Shoemaker (BA 66, MDiv 69).
As a teen, Croft attended Momentum and participated in Operation Barnabas (OB) in 1992. Post-college, she attended Grace Community Church of Seal Beach, where Shoemaker had become the senior pastor
Through OB, she visited Grace’s campus for a reunion. While her Charis Fellowship roots ran deep, Croft was convinced she would never attend Grace. It was simply too far away for the self-proclaimed homebody. However, it took one meeting with Dr. Shara Curry, the chair of the teacher education department at the time, for Croft to realize Grace was where she needed to be.
During her studies as an elementary education major at Grace, Croft recalls sitting in one of Curry’s classes and watching a clip of a school for homeless children in Washington state. Something about the video tugged on her heartstrings. She remembers thinking, “I would love to teach children like that.”
Croft’s experiences in college continued to reinforce that tug — from volunteering with City Impact in Chicago to serving as a “big sister” to a girl whose family was homeless through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Each year, the Lord grew Croft’s heart for inner-city children’s ministry more and more.
Contrary to her thoughts of teaching at an inner-city school, Croft accepted a position at Lakewood Christian School, in Long Beach, California. Meanwhile, she was serving those in crisis with her young adult group at church. The group volunteered and led Bible studies at a Christian crisis pregnancy program, and they helped serve at the Long Beach Rescue Mission. While these ministries were effective for helping adults, Croft noticed children’s ministry programs in the area were lacking.
In an effort to learn more about the need, Croft paid a visit to Christian Outreach in Action (COA), a homeless ministry in Long Beach. When asked why she came to tour the program, Croft went on to share how she felt God leading her to children’s ministry work. The executive director replied, “God’s timing is perfect. We’ve been looking for someone to come. When can you start?”
Croft just about dropped to the ground. That morning, on the drive to school, she had been singing the lyrics “In His Time.”
“Reverend Wood’s response was evidence God was at work, and He had a plan for something beautiful,” said Croft.
The conversation that day was just the beginning of making a preschool children’s ministry of homeless families in Long Beach a reality. Croft began taking classes to earn her early childhood education certification, and Grace Community Church of Seal Beach and Los Altos Grace Church brought her on as a fully supported local missionary to help get the preschool on its feet. By the end of that semester, she notified her principal at Lakewood that she would not be returning the next school year. It was clear the Shepherd was on the move!
The Moses Years
Croft dubbed the two years that followed, “The Moses Years.” Like Moses and the Israelites who wandered through the desert for 40 years, Croft had an idea of where the good Shepherd was taking her; it just seemed to be a roundabout path to get there.
During the following months of 1999, Croft rallied a group of leaders from key churches in the community to discuss starting the preschool at COA. With a board in place, Croft continued to communicate with COA about the space they had for the program. But on a visit a few months later, she was met with disappointing news. “I remember walking in on a Monday morning and being told by one of the employees, ‘Our director was let go last night, and our program is in chaos. We desperately need this preschool program, but we don’t have money for it, nor do we have the space.’”
Without a location or a source of funding, the board reconvened with the goal of making Precious Lamb Preschool a nonprofit organization. November 1999, Precious Lamb received 501(c)(3) status. Meanwhile, finding a location proved to be a challenge.
Croft vetted a number of options — churches, houses, community organizations — but every time a prospect appeared to be promising, something would fall through at the last moment. “Those were really hard times,” said Croft. “But our faith grew. And what God did in the end was far better and bigger than what we ever imagined.”
At the end of two long “Moses years,” in September 2001, First Lutheran Church came back with an offer. Precious Lamb’s children’s ministry finally had a home.
20 Years and Counting
More than 20 years have passed since that first Friday of class at Precious Lamb. The single classroom with two teachers and two students is now three classrooms with 14 teachers, and the preschool has served more than 700 students. Croft has since moved away from Long Beach due to her husband’s position in the Coast Guard, and several executive directors have cycled through leadership. But one thing remains: the mission to introduce children and their parents to the good Shepherd.
“Isaiah 40:11 was the verse that God put on my heart as we started Precious Lamb,” says Croft. The verse reads, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
Croft knows this tender love of a heavenly Father is the best news these children and their parents can receive, all of whom have been through significant trauma. Some have lived in shelters. Some are impacted by drug abuse. Some are silent and unresponsive. And some have outbursts of anger. But Precious Lamb Preschool has consistently presented the truth of the gospel in their ministry to children.
“Life isn’t always happy, but they feel comfortable, loved and cared for,” said Croft. “They can interact and learn. They learn to use their words. They eat good, healthy meals. They are getting exercise. And most importantly, they are forming a relationship with God.”
For many of the children, they arrive at Precious Lamb with little knowledge of God. Over the course of their time there, they hear daily Bible stories, pray before meals and are taught a Christian worldview.
While Croft is no longer serving as executive director at Precious Lamb, she continues to be faithful to the Shepherd’s leading in her life. An active member of her church, she stays busy as a mentor mom through MOPS, she serves as a small group leader in Bethany Hamilton’s Ohana program for mothers and daughters and she coteaches her daughters through their Christian University-Model school. She remains a connected founder of Precious Lamb, visiting several times each summer and Christmas when she is in Long Beach.
This past year, she returned to speak at Precious Lamb’s 20th Anniversary Gala and was in awe of God’s faithfulness to the children’s ministry and the children of Long Beach. “It was surreal,” said Croft. “There were so many people and tables. Everything was china, tablecloths, flower arrangements — the whole nine yards. It was unbelievable how many people came to support the mission.”
Croft will be the first to admit that God has done far more with Precious Lamb than what she ever hoped or imagined. As she looked into the crowd at the gala that night, she saw familiar faces, like Pastor Shoemaker who supported her from the very beginning, interspersed with many faces she didn’t know — faces representing churches, companies and individuals who have come alongside Precious Lamb because they love what they do. All of these people were there because one person said “yes” to God. According to Croft, this is what thriving is all about.
“Part of thriving is seeking God, finding where He is at work and asking how you can join Him in that work,” said Croft. “I hope that those who read my story will look at Precious Lamb and be encouraged to ask, ‘How can I be involved in the work God is doing in my life?’ No matter what city you live in, God is on the move. Find where the Shepherd is leading, and follow Him. That is where thriving is found.”
To learn more about Precious Lamb, or to get involved with their children’s ministry, visit preciouslamb.org.