At-risk children benefit from backpacks
STATESBORO, Ga. (BP)--Principal Shawn Haralson knew he could count on one thing each school day as he greeted his students: the last child off the bus would be Tom. The driver always held Tom back because he caused problems on the way to school, talking back to adults and starting fights with other children. There seemed to be no motivating him to acceptable behavior.
Then First Baptist Church in Statesboro, Ga., launched BackPack Buddies for Bulloch County on Feb. 16, 2008 -- the first national Children's Ministry Day. An initiative of national WMU, Children's Ministry Day is designed to encourage children to simultaneously minister in a concerted effort in their communities.
In 2008, Children's Ministry Day's focus was to provide hope for the hungry. BackPack Buddies provided enough food for a child to eat three meals a day during weekends and short breaks.
First Baptist Statesboro adopted the project after Susan Allen, children's minister at the church, returned from the 2007 National Preschool and Children's Convention in Nashville. During a session on Children's Ministry Day, Allen heard another attendee describe her church's backpack ministry. BackPack Buddies was a perfect fit for Allen's church since Statesboro's child poverty rate, according to City-Data.com, is 38.1%. Child hunger was a critical need the church could address through a food ministry.
Haralson, principal of Julia P. Bryant Elementary School in Statesboro, credits BackPack Buddies with changing Tom's behavior. "Tom was found to be another student we had that was not getting anything to eat most nights of the week," Haralson said. "After starting the backpack program, I have seen Tom's behavior do a 180. He now is one of the first people off the bus and is usually waiting on me to say, 'Good morning,' or sometimes he just takes my job over and greets everyone as if he were me."
Allen said she and the other church leaders knew from the beginning that the children were helping launch a long-term project. Behind the scenes, leaders made arrangements for a lasting ministry.
Allen approached Haralson, also a member of First Baptist Church, about the idea. He got school board approval to house the backpacks and the school identified students who qualified for free or reduced lunches. Letters were sent home with those children, describing the BackPack Buddies program and asking for permission to send food with the children.
On Children's Ministry Day, 39 families joined a scavenger hunt to collect food for the backpacks. They collected the needed food during the day and evening and brought their collection bags to the church the next day.
Jennifer Cooper coordinates the ministry for First Baptist Church. "I had just gone through a period when I was pondering what it meant to completely surrender your life to God," she said. "I was saved at the age of 7 but had been thinking more about how to be used by God. Not too long after this, I read an e-mail from Susan Allen about the backpack program and felt a tug of interest.
"I had always worried that giving complete control would take me to Africa or something, which is totally not me," Cooper continued. "I should have known God would lead me to something He designed me for. I teach kindergarten, so God has suited me well to fit this ministry."
Each Wednesday evening, Cooper and other volunteers meet in a children's classroom at the church. The Children in Action group and youth are part of the volunteer rotation. They pack a predetermined menu of food items into plastic grocery bags -- one per child who will receive the backpacks. The bags are loaded into a church member's car and delivered the next morning to the school, where a parent or teacher volunteer places the plastic bags into numbered backpacks. The backpacks are arranged in numerical order. On Friday afternoon, the school secretary calls the BackPack Buddies to the office to pick up their backpacks.
Though the menu varies each week, a typical bag includes items such as chicken and tuna pouches, pasta lunch buckets, a sleeve of crackers, raisins, fruit cups, peanut butter crackers, cereal bowls, milk, and juice. The ministry relies on church members' regular donations of both food and money. Community organizations, particularly a 4-H group, also contribute. Cooper, along with her husband, Jeremy, and their 7-year-old daughter, Marleigh, often make hour-long trips to a food bank in Savannah to purchase food.
Joy and Kevin Deal direct the Children in Action missions education program at First Baptist and make sure the missions group and their own family stay involved in the food ministry.
"My younger son attends the school where our church has the program," Joy Deal said. "He sees children who go home with the backpacks and we have had opportunities to talk about that. I also help take the backpacks to the school sometimes, and both my boys help unload and take them into the office. [It's a] great way for them to have a small part in missions, right there at their school."
Cooper said the BackPack Buddies project could have long-term benefits. "I hope the recipients see that people they don't know care about them and that this knowledge will lead them to an ability to know that God cares about them," she said.
If the reaction of a 70-year-old grandmother raising her three grandchildren says anything at all, it's that Cooper's hopes are becoming reality. Right before Christmas, Haralson received a call from the grandmother, who wanted to know why she had received a letter about BackPack Buddies.
"I explained to her that I knew she was going through some rough times with watching after all the children and it being Christmas time," Haralson said. He told her BackPack Buddies was going to provide three backpacks full of food each Friday so she could feed the children on the weekends.
Haralson recalled: "God really touches your heart when a 70-year-old woman is on the line crying so hard she can't breathe, telling me 'thank you' over and over again because she knew God would answer her prayers!"
Claudean Boatman leads Girls in Action at Hillside Baptist Church in Greeley, Colo. Children's Ministry Day 2009 is this Saturday, Feb. 14. Children across the country will demonstrate the theme "Loving Hearts" as they seek to meet healthcare related needs in their communities. For more information about CMD 2009, visit www.childrensmissions.com.