Churches across the Florida Conference have long helped families get ready for a new school year. This year, as local congregations weigh the needs of their surrounding neighborhoods, outreach and community service will be as much a part of the festivities as bounce houses, prizes and pencils.
St. John UMC, Sebring, is planning its first-ever back-to-school bash on Aug.15 with games and hot dog lunches, plus an added component that can help parents rest easier. Local Masonic Lodge members will administer the Mason Child Safety Identification Program at no cost to parents, who will be given their child's records for safekeeping. The packages include a physical description and fingerprint card, several photos, a video recording of mannerisms with voice interview and various DNA samples collected on dental impressions and/or cheek swabs.
"I was a school principal for many years, and we had the Masons come on report card night to provide this program," says Ruby Handley, Christian Education Committee chairperson. "It's an invaluable service to help locate missing children."
The Christian Education Committee began discussing ways to have more impact in the community shortly after Handley began as the chairperson last January. The idea of a community back-to-school bash was an alternative to hosting a Vacation Bible School program.
"We felt we could reach more families with a back-to-school event than we did with the previous vacation Bible schools," Handley says. "The event is a briefer period of time, but we can serve more families. Everyone was on board with the idea."
Volunteers will fill 200 backpacks with school supplies on Aug.10. On the day of the event, the men's group will cook hot dogs, and the youth group will help with children's games.
"There is no way to tell how many children will show up this first year," Handley says. "We are going to do this, and then we'll get back together afterwards to discuss what worked and what didn't."
Indian River City UMC, Titusville, has a pretty good idea about what works, as the church prepares to host its seventh annual back-to-school bash on Aug. 8. Last year, 400 students, from voluntary pre-K to high school seniors, attended. This year, 469 students have preregistered for the event, which also includes a “Shoes of Love” component that will provide a new pair of shoes to each student.
"This is the third year to provide shoes at the back-to-school bash," says Jennifer Taylor, outreach ministries leader for the church. "We raised funds and received a Soles4Souls grant. Because the children must preregister, we know how many and what sizes to have on hand."
Supported by five churches in the Indian River City area, the back-to-school bash targets students from Apollo, Coquina and Imperial Estates elementary schools and families of the sponsoring churches.
"All of the schools are Title 1 [a federal low-income designation], so there is a lot of need," says Taylor. "We started with one school seven years ago and it's grown to three."
Planning for the event began last January. Several community groups, including the United Way, are on board. The Brevard Health Alliance Bus will offer free health screenings. Local hairdressers will provide free haircuts to children, and firefighters will give away bicycle helmets.
"We go from zero to full blast in about a month. It's an act of faith," Taylor says. "And every year the bash changes a bit."
One of this year's big changes will be no backpack giveaway because organizers discovered that some people received backpacks in previous years only to sell them later.
"It's sad, but it happens," explains Taylor. "We wanted to make sure the resources get into the hands of kids who really need them, so we work directly with schools to furnish school supplies."
First UMC, Pinellas Park, also has chosen to forgo giving away backpacks at its back-to-school bash on Aug. 21 for the same reason.
"People play the system by making the rounds and collecting free backpacks to sell," says Cherylann Bellavia, children's minister. "We are getting names of families who are in need and getting supplies to them later."
This will be the first back-to-school bash at the church in many years, and it is more about community outreach than school supplies.
"We've been primarily an older congregation, but we're trying to build up families," says Bellavia, who just came to First UMC, Pinellas Park, in late May. "We want to let people know we have things for kids and parents."
School starts Aug. 24 in Pinellas County. Bellavia and her committee chose to host an event the Friday evening before rather than that Saturday morning.
"We knew families would be busy that weekend with last minute back-to-school shopping," she explains.
The back-to-school bash will have typical activities like bounce houses, face painting, games and snacks, but an added component will be an invitation to come inside the church for a short message and door prizes.
"We are trying to focus on building up young families and telling them about what we have for them, such as a parenting class in the fall," Bellavia says. "Our emphasis is outreach and about making connections. Evangelism begins with relationships and connections."
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.