Nearly three years ago, the women's prayer group at Carlson Memorial UMC, LaBelle, wanted to take on a new mission.
"We had always been wanting to do something," says Linda O'Ferrell at Carlson. "We just didn't know what direction."
Someone mentioned a national anti-hunger program, Operation Backpack, adopted by nonprofits and churches. O'Ferrell began researching the initiative to distribute food items to schoolchildren who otherwise had little to eat on the weekends.
"We prayed about it and prayed about it and then God was leading us in this direction," says O'Ferrell, who works as a secretary at LaBelle Elementary School.
Volunteers put out the word about the mission. Donations of cash and food materialized.
"It has blossomed from there," O’Ferrell says.
And it promises to blossom some more, thanks to a Lockmiller grant administered by the Florida Conference and Florida United Methodist Foundation.
Carlson Memorial is one of eight churches that recently received a total of $19,500 in small Lockmiller grants that support missions to aid children and youth.
Another church to receive an award is Community UMC, Casselberry. Volunteers there minister to homeless families living at a nearby extended-stay hotel. Most of the children there attend Casselberry Elementary School, located near the church.
"We started to see the need," says Tiffany Wrigley, the church's leader of missions and outreach. "So we thought, ‘Let's go see what we've got.’"
Other church missions recognized with grants include programs to distribute food, shoes and school supplies.
The grants are the legacy of the late philanthropist Alice W. Lockmiller. She was a lifelong Methodist and a leader in Florida agriculture. Before her death in 2007, she established numerous funds that still support missions, construction, education and ministry initiatives to end childhood poverty and hunger.
In addition to the churches, the Florida Advocacy Days scholarship program, which helps young adults participate in Children’s Week in Tallahassee, is a recipient of a $5,000 grant. Other awards ranged from $1,000 to $2,000.
A Florida Conference committee evaluates the applications according to award criteria, and the grants are distributed from funds managed by the Florida United Methodist Foundation.
"We had a whole crop of fresh new ministries," says Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, the conference's director of missional engagement. "Only one was a repeat from last year."This year also saw fewer applicants and less than the traditional amount of $25,000 awarded. But funds not used this year will be recycled into the program and can be used in future years in the event of emergencies or for additional recipients.
"If we had a run on it, we have the flexibility to spend more than $25,000," Campbell-Evans says.
Volunteers at Carlson Memorial rotate duties of packing food supplies in backpacks on Thursdays for delivery to three elementary schools, where students receive them on Fridays. Recently the program expanded to middle and high schools. Most backpacks are filled with peanut butter crackers, cans of ravioli or baked beans, small cereal boxes, Pop Tarts and occasionally bags of potato chips.
With special school permission, O'Ferrell says, Bibles sometimes have been included.
Most of the children's parents are migrant workers.
"It's just stuff they can eat without cooking,” O’Ferrell says. “Most of their parents are out in the fields working. They get very little to eat on the weekends."
Storage space for supplies is provided by a local Baptist church that operates a nearby youth house.
Carlson needs about $3,000 every other week to keep the program going.
"It's not cheap," O' Ferrell says.
Last year, the Carlson congregation used about $3,000 from its general account to add a special Christmas backpack giveaway that helped about 150 families.
"We did this strictly on faith," O’Ferrell says. "We didn't know if it would be replaced."
The following week the church received about $4,000 in donations.
"God has provided every single time," she says. "We've been blessed in every situation. As long as he provides, we're going to keep going with it."
At Community UMC, Casselberry, volunteers are tackling a chronic problem in the community: Families crowd in with relatives or friends, camp out in tents under bridges or shuttle from one hotel to another. About half of the children at Casselberry Elementary School are considered homeless.
School officials often turn to nearby Community UMC for help. Two years ago, the congregation took on the responsibility of helping homeless families with children who live at the hotel near the church. Currently, that’s 11 families. Their circumstances differ, but the need is the same, Wrigley says.
Some are unemployed or unable to hold jobs for medical reasons. Some simply made bad financial choices and are getting back on their feet.
"Jobs are scarce. Food is scarce," Wrigley says.
Area social agencies work with the families that need jobs, health care and permanent housing.
Church volunteers fill in some of the gaps. Donations sometimes help pay for security or utility deposits, as needed. Families are invited to church for prayer services and meals prepared by a youth ministry.
"I definitely think this is a way to reach the unchurched," Wrigley says. "I think they see through faith, love and compassion they are not alone. We want to see their progress. They see we love their children as they do."
A church bus is available to pick people up. Wrigley says volunteers noticed older children – in fourth or fifth grade – sometimes wouldn't come because they had to stay behind to care for their younger siblings.
"We wanted to expand the program to set up a baby-sitting program so the whole family could be helped and see Jesus and not be excluded," Wrigley says.
About 75 church members volunteer with the program. Other church missions also participate, including a women's sewing group that knits baby blankets and caps.
"It's a labor of love for everybody," Wrigley says.
Other Lockmiller grants went to the following:
First UMC, Fort Meade, for a community feeding program;
Trinity UMC, DeLand, for a program to provide shoes to children attending elementary school;
Asbury UMC, Jacksonville, to provide spiritual enrichment and breakfast to community children on Sundays;
Friendship UMC, Punta Gorda, to allow a food pantry that serves families with children to also provide formula and baby food;
St. Paul's UMC, Largo, to help the church provide up to 400 students with backpacks, school supplies, dental supplies, shoe vouchers, underwear, haircuts and a craft table at a back-to-school jubilee;
Shady Hills UMC, Spring Hill, for a food pantry in Pasco County to distribute food to families once a month.
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.