Harvest UMC making the grade in Manatee CountySchool-Church Partnerships
Barrie Wilkie’s approach to Christian service is a call to action.
“You can’t be a pew potato,” she said. “Being a Christian is a verb.”
That motto was never more evident than it was after she attended a meeting in 2011 about nutrition and elementary school students. She remembers being shocked after being told, “You have hungry children right here.”
She attends Harvest United Methodist Church in Lakewood Ranch, an area of Manatee County not known for poverty. But rather than take comfort in denial, Wilkie set out immediately to learn about a problem that is more widespread than many might believe.
“It just shocked me. It was unacceptable,” she said.
“She basically told us about the problem and asked us what we were going to do about it,” Harvest Director of Discipleship Mike Kennedy said.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, as members raised their hands to volunteer.
Samoset is a Title I school about 25 minutes from the church campus. In many ways, though, it is a world apart.
An estimated 90 percent of its students receive free or assisted lunches. Sometimes there aren’t enough books to open their eyes to the possibilities of life. These things can sabotage academic achievement and keep a community stuck in a hopeless cycle.
Fighting what seemed an overwhelming task, the first steps involved forming a proper foundation then building on that. Wilkie tried to address what happens when students leave for the weekend or extended holidays. Hunger doesn’t take a day off.
School officials identified those they knew were exceptionally needy, and Harvest volunteers began providing 35 students with bags of food that could get them through days when the school was closed.
“It was built around the idea that these students could come to school on Monday ready to learn and not be distracted by the growl in their stomach,” Kennedy said.
The spark Wilkie struck quickly spread throughout Harvest UMC, and now more than 80 volunteers regularly provide bags of food for at least 122 students. They also serve as volunteers and mentors, encourage teachers and provide each student with a free book at book fairs.
“Families didn’t have funds to buy books, so this puts books in the hands of children,” Kennedy said.
It doesn’t stop there, either.
Harvest set up an in-school food pantry that parents at Samoset can use in emergencies. On every third Sunday at Harvest, members donate food that helps fuel the Pack-a-Sack program.
The church also provides free clothing items, including shoes and socks if needed. And through the Take Stock in Children program, the church dedicated parts of three Christmas Eve offerings, totaling more than $46,000, to fund five college scholarships for students at the school.
Students commit to keeping a solid grade-point average, remaining drug- and crime-free and having regular meetings with a mentor until they graduate from high school.
“In most cases, a student who earns a scholarship is the first student in that family to go to college,” Kennedy said.
“What we have done is provide an opportunity for people here to serve and to build relations with people who have different life experience. Our goal is simply to love and encourage the students and teachers.”
The members of Harvest UMC were committed to making a difference.
“Oh man, this is huge for us,” Samoset Principal Maribeth Mason said. “We are so blessed to have Harvest as partners. We have a school of pretty great kids who don’t always have the things they need.
“On any given day, we have between 10 and 20 volunteers here every day. They become Harvest moms and dads to the kids. They fill in the gaps for these kids while their parents work.”
Caryn Patterson is the current volunteer leader of the outreach. With Kennedy and other volunteers, she helps coordinate the aid programs. She believes strongly that such service is a fundamental duty for Christians.
“I love giving back. It’s something I know I am supposed to do. I love volunteering, and my kids, who are 11 and 13, see me do it and come with me to help out,” she said.
“It’s good for them to see that not everyone lives like we do. This is what I am called to do.”
And what about Barrie Wilkie?
She passed the leadership baton of the program but remains active at Harvest. What she started has had measurable success. When the program began, Samoset Elementary was rated an F school by the Florida Department of Education.
That grade has steadily risen. In the most recent ranking, Samoset improved to a C and missed being a B school by only a couple of points.
“I guess it’s like the poem of Robert Frost. I took the road less traveled,” she said. “The satisfaction of recognizing a need and doing something about it is one thing, but it really is about the response from the church. Thanks to that, the ministry has grown tenfold.
“It’s ended up involving a lot of people who are truly dedicated to make this happen,” said Wilke. “It makes me think about the Bible verse where Jesus says that whatever you have done for the least of us, whatever you have done, you have done for me. We were just trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.
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