Long before the school summer recess reached its waning days, United Methodist churches throughout Florida were planning events, organizing services and collecting supplies to prepare students in need for the upcoming year.
For many, it’s part of a broader outreach effort in partnership with other local organizations and agencies.
It’s an ecumenical effort in which 31 faith-based organizations and dozens of businesses, caregivers and agencies serve more than 2,300 kids in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
|The Back-To-School Bash at University Carillon UMC included haircuts.|
In addition to backpacks and school supplies, they provide medical and dental exams, haircuts, clothes, shoes and other personal items.
“We celebrated the 125th anniversary of the church in 2015 and wanted to do something special in the community,” First Sarasota church council chair and event coordinator Kara Altice-Montes said.
“We found the organization Hope4Kids and began working with them, as we really liked their mission and saw this as a way to make a positive impact.”
Each church partners with an elementary school, and the school provides the church with a list of students who are on the free lunch program and would benefit from the services. This year, First Sarasota served over 200 students from Emma E. Booker Elementary.
The day-long event began with a hot meal. There were areas to create art, play, take student and family photos and a community service with the minister, Rev. Sam Wright. Each family received two large bags of food and gift certificates.
“A critical part of the event is the Ambassador Program, which places a volunteer with the family on arrival,” Altice-Montes said.
“This person acts as the family guide throughout the event. Our ambassadors love it, the families appreciate the support and friendship, everyone benefits. We had over 50 ambassadors.”
Fundraising begins in February and church members, if able, are asked to sponsor a child at $100 each.
“We’ve established a relationship with the Booker Elementary administrators and teachers and plan to start a program now called Continuing Hope, where we’ll stay engaged with the school throughout the year,” Altice-Montes said.
Ortega UMC in Jacksonville partners with two elementary schools, nearby Stockton and Venetia. The latter is a Title I school, which means it has a high percentage of children from low-income families. It also serves many military families from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
“Duval County Schools invites partnerships between faith communities and county schools,” Rev. Art McClellan said. “The county distributes a list of needed school supplies, the Venetia principal identifies 10 items needed by every student and Ortega delivers.”
This is Ortega’s third year partnering with Venetia. This year, 500 students were served. The drive culminates in Backpack Sunday on Aug. 12.
“We invite the church’s children and their families to bring backpacks forward and the congregation prays for students, their families and their backpacks as they begin the next school-year journey,” McClellan said.
“We lift a prayer of gratitude for school supplies received as an offering, and a prayer of blessings for the children and families who will receive them.”
Ortega also hosts Venetia’s “Purple Ball,” a dinner and program celebrating the school’s military families.
To McClellan, the back-to-school events are “the front door to more ministry engagement” at the schools.
“We are re-envisioning our presence to be tutors, readers and more through a new volunteer coordinator staff position,” he said.
The newer partnership with Stockton is flourishing as well. Ortega has been invited to host graduation ceremonies and attend school events as a recognized community partner.
In fall 2017, Ortega invited Stockton students to join them for WOW (Wonderful Ortega Wednesdays) and after-school activities that include music, art, recreational games and story teaching. Transportation is provided.
The back-to-school event led to more personal engagement with those living near the church.
“We love the positive buzz in the community,” McClellan said.
Anona UMC, with locations in St. Petersburg and Largo, regularly holds back-to-school drives for at-need students. This year is the first time they’ve held a school supply drive for kids in the Micronesian community, in nearby Dunedin.
“We have supported them in the past at our Christmas Mission, with gifts for the children,” Anona’s missions co-chair Janice Dean said.
|St. Paul Largo prepares for its Back-To-School Jubilee.|
“Many people asked how they could help the children throughout the year. School supplies were a big need, so we decided on a drive for the month of July.”
Anona worked with Rev. Tim Barton, at First UMC of Dunedin, to help about 60 K-12 students.
“Most of the students are second-generation immigrants who are living on a very low income,” Barton said. “Their parents are able to provide for basic needs, but large expenses all at once, such as school supplies, create financial stress.”
Dunedin FUMC serves about 30 Micronesian families.
“The Micronesian community is incredibly grateful for all of the help from Anona and other churches in the Gulf Central District,” Barton said. “It’s important for the students to know that other people have taken an interest in their well-being and future.”
For nearby schools, Dean said, Anona provides feeding and tutoring ministries, before-school groups and more.
“We also lead a coalition of nonprofits and schools that serve the Greater Ridgecrest Area,” she said.
“For us, the ministry to the Micronesian community is an extension of these ministries, even though they are geographically too far for direct connection. Our hope and mission is that hunger and poverty will not keep kids from succeeding in school.”
The Home, established in 1908 for children who had nowhere else to live, is a diverse ministry with two campuses that include residential, therapeutic group, foster and emergency shelter care, and a child care center.
There are about 500 children, from kindergarten to high school age, at the Home.
Last year, Asbury showed its support by collecting household and personal items for the children.
“(There was) everything imaginable to run a home for children, house them, feed them, dress them, send them to school, teach them skills,” said Diana Simpson, who leads Asbury’s collection effort. “It was hugely successful.”
The UMC back-to-school ministries have won enthusiastic support from both the churches and communities.
Altice-Montes, who coordinates First Sarasota’s Day4Hope, said the reward for the church has been great.
“(It) just buzzes with energy and excitement before and after the event. Now I can’t imagine our church without this effort,” she said. “It stretches our faith, stretches us as a congregation and as individuals.”
If you would like to donate school supplies or volunteer to help with a back-to-school event, contact a UMC in your area.
—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale.