An annual rite of giving at Sager Brown




Editor’s Note: Sager Brown started as a school and orphanage for African-American children in southern Louisiana in 1867. After the school’s closing in 1978, the St. Mary’s Parish area where the building was located became devastated when Hurricane Andrew swept through in 1992. The brick buildings of the old school still stood, and UMCOR used the facility to respond to neighboring survivors. Today, it serves as a Christian ministry serving rural poverty firsthand and mission needs worldwide. From morning devotions to evening vespers, this submitted story offers a unique glimpse of what a mission trip to Sager Brown is often like.

Over the past eight years, I have joined other people from Orlando’s Downtown Methodist Church and Winter Park’s Methodist Church to travel to Baldwin, Louisiana, to work at the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) Sager Brown Distribution Center.

Our most recent trip this past fall began on a Saturday morning when we were up at 5 a.m., had breakfast at IHOP, then met the team at First Church downtown. Pastor Tom McCloskey led us in prayer, and we departed in a rented bus. The professional driver, as it turned out, was a member of Leesburg UMC who we recruited to join for the mission. After a stopover in Alabama, we enjoyed a picnic of leftover food along the bayou and were on the way to our destination.

Phil Keyes of LaBelle, Florida, works on a support for a new gazebo. This project was part of an annual mission trip to Sager Brown that included volunteers from FUMC Orlando and FUMC Winter Park.

The week is not a vacation. Volunteers are expected to work, for there is much that needs to be accomplished.

Upon arrival in Baldwin, we received our room assignments, unpacked, ate a casserole and salad dinner we carried from Orlando and had an evening devotional. Most of us were asleep early to prepare for the 5:30 wake-up Monday morning. 

Mandatory devotions were at 6:45 a.m. and vespers at 7 p.m. Following each meal we also performed kitchen and dining room clean up duties to keep costs at the facility at a minimum.

Our 37-member group worked in the warehouse and sewing room, and we performed ministries in the Baldwin community.

The assembly of relief kits, including flood buckets, became our primary job, but because of the versatility of skills and abilities among the Florida group, the Sager Brown management usually presents us with more demanding chores. 

The kits were packed into boxes, loaded into overseas containers and shipped to more than 81 countries around the world, wherever natural or human-caused disasters occur or where there are suffering victims. Supplies for the kits were donated by Methodist congregations throughout the country.

Starting on Tuesday, our big task was to load two containers, both going to Haiti. We loaded 940 boxes filled with 22,550 health kits and 1,875 boxes filled with 22,500 school kits, with everything from soap and toothbrushes to pencils and notepads, along with backpacks made in the Sager Brown sewing room.

Once the container was filled and its doors sealed, we circled around to pray for the people who would receive the kits and for safe arrival and quick distribution of the needed supplies. It was a special moment Tuesday when the truck driver also joined our circle and prayed with us. 

During the week, several of our team visited a Head Start Pre-K Center, a senior citizen center and a home for abused women in Baldwin. Other workers put finishing touches on four large wooden lockers designed for supply storage at the Pre-K and worked on a gazebo on the Sager Brown campus. When completed, it was to be used for a variety of gatherings and events.

Later in the week, I was asked to close the evening vesper service and give a benediction prayer. The Rev. Dr. Gaye Smith and a minister from Paris, Texas, served communion; and my long-time friend, Skip Wagner from Orlando, led us in prayers for whoever had concerns.

Friday morning we rushed to finish last-minute details on our projects, said goodbyes and started home.

Until our return, team members stay in touch and friendships continue to grow. We have a couple of get-together reunions during the year and work on projects to gather materials and supplies for the next fall’s Sager Brown visit. The Florida team’s contribution made this year’s mission trip one of the most meaningful and productive ever.

--Phillip Keyes is a freelance writer based in LaBelle.       



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