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Palm Coast UMC youth tackle homelessness with ‘stoplight bags’

Palm Coast UMC youth tackle homelessness with ‘stoplight bags’

Missions and Outreach Social Justice

Chances are you’ve seen homeless men and women panhandling at intersections across the area. Maybe you’ve handed out change or bottles of water, or maybe you’ve wanted to reach out but have not known exactly what to do.

The youth at Palm Coast United Methodist Church are on a mission to fix that.

For the fourth consecutive year, young people ranging from middle schoolers to college students still home on break, have packed dozens of “stoplight bags” for the men, women, and children living on the streets.

To fill the bags, the youth group solicits donations of undergarments, socks, trial-size toiletries, water, lip balm and fun-size snacks from the Palm Coast UMC congregation.

“Then what we do is take everything that has been donated and create an assembly line and pack it into Ziplock gallon bags,” said Lee Thornton, director of youth and adult education.

The end result is a tangible and useful collection of items that can be immensely helpful to someone living on the streets.

Stoplight Volunteers

This year, on Jan. 12, the group spent the afternoon compiling 88 bags that were distributed to various organizations serving the homeless across Flagler County. Many of the bags were provided to officials who will soon conduct the annual point-in-time count of the area homeless population.

The Sheltering Tree in Bunnell, a nonprofit that serves the poor and homeless, also received bags. Some of the stoplight bags were also kept at Palm Coast UMC to be distributed during Our Father’s Table dinner held every Saturday night for the homeless.

“There’s obviously a great need,” Thornton said. “It’s a big problem in Palm Coast.”

The 2019 annual point-in-time count required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the number of homeless people in Flagler County had more than doubled since 2018, jumping from 62 to 130.

Across Flagler and Volusia counties, an estimated 700 people on any given day experience homelessness, according to the Volusia-Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless.

The VFCCH is recruiting volunteers to help conduct the 2020 point-in-time count on Jan. 23-24.

For Thornton’s youth group, taking the time to compile the stoplight bags has served as an important life lesson and given them the chance to do their part to meet the needs of the homeless.

“To raise awareness,” she said. “To teach them how to be an active member of the community. … To teach them that they’re not entitled. This could happen to anybody. It’s a big problem, and they’re going to the be next generation to deal with it.”

Thornton said the kids are learning that their efforts on a single issue can ultimately make a significant impact on an entire group of people.

“It’s really opened their eyes,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much it means to them to put the bags together. And to hear their prayers. We pray over the bags, and we pray for the people who will receive them.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.