United Methodists gather at state capitol to advocate for children’s issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists gather at state capitol to advocate for children’s issues

April 15, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0657}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

TALLAHASSEE — For Florida United Methodists, children are a priority.

At the 17th Conference Table last January, the social issues that surround and impact children were chosen as a common social witness on which the conference would focus.

That witness came to fruition the last week of March, as United Methodists joined hundreds of people gathered in Tallahassee at the state capitol for “Children’s Week.”

Paper cutouts and tracings of the hands of thousands of Florida children, including those from Florida Conference churches, streamed from the ceiling of the state capitol rotunda in Tallahassee during the annual Children's Week activities March 25-April 1. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #07-0563.

The handprints of more than 100,000 children from around Florida, including hundreds from United Methodists, graced the capitol, cascading on banners two and three stories long and covering every stairwell. The hands symbolically showed the importance of children’s issues to lawmakers.

Children’s Week brought together thousands of parents, children, professionals, community leaders and concerned citizens to share information and strategies on how to impact Florida’s lawmakers to make children a priority. The Florida Conference, through its partnership with Florida Impact (see sidebar), was one of more than 40 groups on hand for a press conference March 27 highlighting the needs of children.

According to Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, Florida Impact is an organization that advocates for social policy from a religious perspective. “In The United Methodist Church in Florida, we look to Florida Impact to be our point of contact with public policy makers,” he said.

The morning of the press conference Whitaker also met with Florida Governor Charlie Crist, part of a larger group of representatives from other churches and organizations working to better the lives of children.

“I was asked to share with the governor the success we’ve had with the Children’s Summer Nutrition Act, which is called the Willie Ann Glenn Act,” Whitaker said. “The governor wasn’t fully aware of that act, and we explained to him that since it was passed by the legislature last year, we’ve received money to feed children in the summer.”

Whitaker noted that all 67 counties in Florida provide some sort of summer nutrition program for children. Helping host those programs is one concrete way United Methodists can work to better the lives of children.

“All the money is provided by the state,” Whitaker said. “All you have to do is provide the organization in order to make it happen.”

Whitaker said he is also talking with Bishop McKinley Young, presiding prelate of the 11th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, based in Jacksonville, to encourage his denomination and United Methodists, along with African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches, to come together around feeding hungry children.

Pam Davis, chair of the Florida Conference’s task force for the Council of Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty, was at the capitol with other United Methodists from around the state, meeting and talking with legislators.

“Our main concern is health care for all,” Davis said. “We don’t want children to wait until they’re sick and they go to the emergency room and cost taxpayers additional dollars.”

Davis said there are 700,000 children in Florida without adequate health care today. She was in Tallahassee advocating for the Kid-Care Bill, which would enable every child to go to the doctor for preventive checkups.

The conference’s Peace with Justice Coordinator, Alma Manning, was also at the capitol. She said local churches can get involved in ministry with and for children at many levels.

“Get to know your representatives and what the issues are,” she said. “Churches can become a site for a summer feeding program or become a member of Florida Impact so they can get information on the issues.”

Manning said it is important to not only help with programs that feed children, for example, but also discover the reasons why these problems exist in the first place.

“I’ve always been interested in not only doing the immediate things to alleviate and help children and families,” she said, “but also to get at the root causes … so we don’t always have to do the other things as much.”

The Rev. Russell Meyer, an ordained Lutheran pastor and executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said lifting up children’s issues is important ministry.

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (left) met with Florida Governor Charlie Crist March 27 during the annual Children's Week in Tallahassee  to advocate for children's issues. Other religious and community leaders also met with the governor to share their concerns for and strategies to help Florida's children. Photo courtesy of Governor Charlie Crist's office. Photo #07-0564.

“A group of church leaders and hunger organizers met with Governor Crist to ask him to be involved in some campaigns that highlight how we can overcome hunger and poverty among children in Florida,” he said. “The good news: there’s money, there’s means, there’s resources. The pieces are all there; we just need the political will to sign on the dotted line.”

Meyer said the summer hot lunch program is a good starting point for churches to make a difference for children.

“There are real concerns developing these days about what happens to impoverished children during the summer,” Meyer said. “Health indicators are beginning to suggest that they become unhealthy during the summer because the foods that are available for them are unhealthy. Not all school districts are willing to run a hot lunch program during the summer, so in those communities where the school districts haven’t stepped up and said, ‘Yes, we’ll … make sure our children are fed,’ churches can step up and do that.”

There seems to be a convergence of interest on the needs of children, Whitaker noted, following a press conference where Governor Crist spoke on autism, a disease that afflicts one in 166 Florida children.

“It seems like for a long time, we’ve kind of taken children for granted. We know they’re out there, we know they have needs, but our attention has been focused elsewhere,” Whitaker said. “People are starting to realize that if this is going to be a great nation, we have to invest in our children, and certainly, we have to begin by making sure that the poor and needy children in our state get their basic needs met.”

Information on a variety of social issues, especially poverty and hunger, is available through Florida Impact’s Web site, http://www.flimpact.org. According to the Web site, Florida Impact has been dedicated “to reducing hunger and poverty in Florida” since 1979. Its mission is “to inspire and enlist the people of Florida to secure justice for and with those whose economic rights have not been realized,” and to work “to increase access to food programs by conducting aggressive outreach strategies and public policy advocacy.”


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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