Church dedicated to fighting childhood hunger




Were it not for the sacks that go home with students on weekends, many at Bellaire Elementary School in Clearwater would not have much, if anything, to eat until they return to school on Monday morning.

Most of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunches, but the school isn’t open on weekends. That’s where the Pack-A-Sack program for First United Methodist Church of Clearwater takes over.

The Pack-a-Sack storeroom at First UMC Clearwater has no lack of contributions and support.

“We have a room in the church that is set up with shelves of food we order from New Vista, a food service in Tampa that works with us to get decently priced food,” said Michelle Gates, who, with Susan Curtis, co-chairs the outreach.

“We also get milk through the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries. We have a group of packers and a group of deliverers. Packers meet every other Wednesday and pack 12 items and a piece of fresh fruit in each sack. We also pack the bags for the following week without the fruit and one of us puts it in later.”

The sacks are delivered every week. They include a granola bar, cereal box, captain’s wafers, grilled cheese, a mixed fruit cup, apple juice, pretzels, a pudding, can of Vienna sausages, some peanut butter crackers and Slim Jims, a piece of fresh fruit and milk.

This ministry has been part of the church for more than a decade, and it is going strong. While the committee is now serving 90 youngsters, that number has climbed as high as 125.

The school guidance counselor determines who needs the food and relays that information to the ministry. The delivery folks either work singly or in a team of two, volunteering for one week a month to deliver to the school and pick up empty bins for the next week.

Fund-raising activities support the ministry and realtor Martha Thorn’s office provides the fresh fruit each week.
The nearby Church of Christ Science pitches in 36 sacks each month and Ascension Episcopal Church has underwritten the milk for the past two years.

“The rest of it is through fundraising that we do,” Gates said.

“We have a group of very mission-minded people in our church, and this was just a natural progression when (church member) Lew Hill brought this to them,” First UMC Pastor Daphne Johnson said. “Bellaire Elementary is our partner school, and we do many things to help them.”

The church is called to work toward transformation in this world, she said. That includes being involved in justice and mercy ministries. 

Church members preparing to serve at Peace Cafe.

“The idea of so many children in our area not having enough to eat is unthinkable. So, our church felt this is one of the things we are being called to do in the process of transforming our community and our world. Children who have enough to eat can study and learn and make a difference in our world.”

This mission is an answer to God’s calling for the church to do ministry in the community.

Johnson was so concerned about children going hungry that she took the Pack-A-Sack program to another church with which she had some involvement.

“So, personally this is a program I am very supportive of.  And this is why I was so excited when I came to serve here and discovered that it was already a very successful program.”

The program is going so well at First UMC of Clearwater that Johnson has to do little but publicize it from the pulpit.

“We have an amazing Pack-a-Sack team that makes sure this program is run like a well-oiled machine,” she said.

Thorn, whose real estate company provides fruit, said she does not get a chance to work directly with the children, but receives their sweet notes.

“We all need to help as many people as possible and programs like this give us a chance to give back to the community,” she said.

It takes about $15,000 a year to run the program. The church also assists the school tutoring and mentoring, helping with the book fair and more.

The dress ministry sends over 400 dresses each year to children in Haiti and Nicaragua.

“I am a retired teacher and I have taught in schools with needy children and in schools where children didn’t need a thing,” Gates said. “I know how appreciative the kids are.”

“I see these little faces. It just makes us all feel so good to know they will not be as hungry. Everything we give them is something they can open and eat. No one has to prepare it for them.”

First UMC of Clearwater is involved in several mission programs, including Peace Cafe. The church works with Peace Memorial Presbyterian to provide a hot meal for 80 to 120 homeless neighbors.

We do other ministries to benefit children, as well,” Johnson said. “We have one ministry that sends over 400 dresses each year to children in Haiti and Nicaragua so that they may attend school.”

Each dress is handmade by church seamstresses. 

“We also do Angel Tree at Christmas which provides gifts for children of parents who are incarcerated,” Johnson said.

The program has made those who volunteer come closer together. And that’s why, as Gates said, “We always celebrate another year of Pack-a-Sack.”

--Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.


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