Churches help youth get summer meals

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches help youth get summer meals

By Derek Maul | July 24, 2010 {1202}

When Suzie Asa answered the call to serve as director of children and family ministries at Keystone United Methodist Church in Keystone Heights, she immediately began to pray about vacation Bible school (VBS).

“I thought it was important that we feed the kids,” Asa said, “but evidently God meant the entire town.”

Suzie Asa shares details about a partnership between churches in her community to help youth participate in the summer meal program at the local high school with members attending Florida Advocacy Days at Children’s Week at the state capitol. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1520. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

That sense of community mission was clarified at a training event for the Florida Conference’s North East District Jan. 23 at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.

“A lot of information on childhood hunger had already come across my desk,” Asa said. “The district workshop challenged me to get involved with the summer feeding initiative.”

Motivated to action, Asa made plans to attend Florida Advocacy Days at Children’s Week in Tallahassee in April, where she took a workshop on summer feeding programs led by Melinda Trotti and Tammy Fisher, director and project coordinator, respectively, of the conference’s justice and outreach ministries.

She also invited churches in the Keystone Heights area to a meeting to begin a conversation about a cooperative summer initiative.

When only members of Keystone United Methodist Church members showed up, Asa knew what she had to do.

“I got on the phone and called the other churches,” she said. “The Lord was telling me to do this; God would not leave me alone.”

Representatives from five churches — Episcopalian, Baptist, Community, Church of Christ and United Methodist — came to the next meeting, and the ecumenical Keystone Heights Partnership to End Childhood Hunger was born.

“We decided to coordinate our vacation Bible school schedules, help one another where we could, and work together on transportation so that kids who qualify for Florida Impact’s summer breakfast and lunch program (at Keystone Heights High School) could attend VBS (at the participating churches) and return to the high school for lunch,” Asa said.

Three buses with drivers were secured to transport the kids to and from the school and the churches, Asa said, and since the school’s nutrition program would run Monday through Thursday June 9-July 28, participating churches also pledged to provide lunch on Friday during their VBS week.

Volunteers worked hard to get the word out to families about the opportunity, Asa said.

“We’ve been meeting every two weeks for planning,” she said, prior to the launch of the cooperative effort. “We’re all going to pitch in and help, sharing volunteers and resources with the smaller churches.”

The initiative began June 14 with the first VBS week at Keystone United Methodist Church. Keystone Community Church held its VBS June 21-25, and Trinity Baptist picked up the program July 12-16. The partnership’s final week, July 19-23, took place at Keystone Heights Church of Christ. Both the Episcopalian and United Methodist church in nearby Melrose are supporting the effort with volunteers and resources.

This tells the community that our churches are not just filling pews. We are going out into the world because we care about the people who have basic needs that are unmet. It is the love and grace of Jesus that leads us out there. We are breaking through for the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.”

— Rev. Don Corbit

Asa is disappointed the first and last week of the high school’s summer meal schedule weren’t covered by the partnership, but says plans are already in the works for next year. “I don’t think Christ will leave the other churches alone,” she said. “He pursued me; he’ll chase them down!”

Strength in numbers

“I attended the second meeting, heard Suzie’s vision, and was hooked,” said Carey Morford, a member at Community Church of Keystone Heights. “God had been speaking some similar things to me, and I saw this as an opportunity to step outside of our church walls in ministry.

“Sometimes we think of the church as our particular campus and community,” he added. “When that happens, we quit seeing the outside world altogether — when we don’t see it, we can’t love it. We are stronger together than we are apart. It’s funny how we can spend so much time talking about the gifts and talents, and how the body has to work together in our own congregations, but we rarely apply that to the community working together.”

In 2009, Central Florida served as a pilot project for a Florida Impact campaign to increase the number of qualifying children who actually receive meals during the summer. There was a 68 percent increase in children served last year, but the number still represents less than 10 percent of eligible families.

The Florida Conference has been a supporter of Florida Impact, a Tallahassee-based advocacy group that mobilizes communities to end hunger and poverty, since its inception in 1979 and actively works to get congregations involved in serving as summer meal sites or helping at existing sites. It’s part of the conference’s commitment to end childhood hunger in Florida and reduce poverty among children, a conference-wide social witness mission adopted in 2007.

“Keystone Heights has a significant free and reduced lunch population,” Asa said. “There’s a tremendous need, but I believe that the churches here that open their hearts and minds will flourish, regardless of resources.”

At one point, six churches were participating in the partnership, but one congregation dropped out because leaders were afraid too many children would attend their VBS program.

“The Lord is using this to enable us to do what we’re supposed to do,” Asa said. “It’s about obedience, and turning away a hungry child can’t be obedience.” Asa believes that obedience involves trusting “the Creator of the Universe to provide.”

The Rev. Jason Mole says Trinity Baptist Church is excited to be involved in the joint venture. Mole is associate pastor of the church’s children’s ministries.

Children get ready to eat lunch at Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church in Bradenton. The church served as a Summer Food Service Program site in 2009, helping fill the gap for school children during the summer when they wouldn’t get the benefit of a school lunch. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1280. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #1062, 08/6/09. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery.

“This project is way too big for just one church,” he said. “One church could attempt it and be somewhat successful, but to reach a whole community of children, it takes a community effort of churches.”

The Gospel in action

The Rev. Don Corbit, senior pastor at Keystone United Methodist Church, has been working with the transportation team as a “safety follower,” in addition to facilitating inter-church communication with the planning team.

“This is a breakthrough in Kingdom values and mission,” Corbit said. “We find strength and purpose in drawing our resources together. We hope to see the children fed physically and spiritually — and churches experiencing the depth and riches of the whole body of Christ.”

The Keystone Heights partnership goes well beyond food, Corbit said, to tell the truth about the Gospel.

“This tells the community that our churches are not just filling pews,” he said. “We are going out into the world because we care about the people who have basic needs that are unmet. It is the love and grace of Jesus that leads us out there. We are breaking through for the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.”

Mole agrees. “I want them to know that even though they are being fed lunch, Jesus is the only one who will satisfy the hunger of their hearts,” he said. “A project like this tells the world that it matters who you put your faith in. As churches from different denominations we have differences in the working out of our faith, but we all agree on who our faith is in — Jesus Christ. He has loved us, and (Jesus) is that important to us that we can come together to share his love and name with all.”

No one knows exactly how many children the five churches have reached through the partnership’s efforts, but Asa knows the result she hopes has come from it.

“I’d love to see families that feel isolated or separated from the church begin to break the patterns, to learn how to trust,” she said. “I grew up feeling that goodness and hope come to me, and I want to see that in children’s lives.”

“The camaraderie when we’ve been planning together is amazing,” Asa adds. “Besides, the Spirit told me, ‘You’re going to have more children than you’ve ever seen!’ ”

More information about the partnership is available by calling Asa at 352-473-3829.

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News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.

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