Hope in a backpack for hungry kids
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Global Hunger Sunday, Oct. 11, Southern Baptist congregations will address the hunger crisis across North America and around the world by receiving special offerings. Donations received are channeled through Global Hunger Relief, which uses 100 percent of each gift to meet hunger needs.
Pastor Dennis Garcia of The People Church in Moriarty, N.M., knows what it means to be hungry.
"I grew up in a family that was in poverty," he said of his childhood in Albuquerque. "We lived off of WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and food stamps and all of those programs. My parents would sometimes trade their food stamps away to buy drugs, and so we would ultimately go without as kids."
Garcia said he sees the same pattern of need in his current community of Moriarty -- where an estimated 28 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and a majority of public school students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Many children don't have reliable access to basic nutritional necessities at home. With a heart for the physical and spiritual needs of underprivileged families in the district, Garcia reached out to Moriarty-Edgewood School District to offer assistance.
Ten miles away in Edgewood, a ladies' Bible study from Mountain Valley Church was completing a study on love through actions.
"We've written checks for years, but this is really about being Jesus' hands and feet," Bible study member Sheryl Stewart said. After learning about the need at Moriarty Elementary School (MES), she started looking for ways her group could help.
Packed with love
Both Garcia and Stewart connected with MES's parent-teacher liaison Sue Gibson, who shared one of the school's greatest concerns.
"On Mondays, we would have hungry, sick children," Gibson said. "They would come to school so hungry that they would overeat for breakfast and then throw up because of it. Some of them were so hungry, they couldn't eat."
At the beginning of the 2014 school year, she paired Stewart and Garcia to launch a solution: give students backpacks stocked with food for the weekend -- two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and plenty of between-meal snacks -- enough to nourish growing bodies and fuel childhood adventures while they're away from the classroom.
"My wife claims she has the spiritual gift of shopping," Garcia joked. "The items vary from week to week depending on what we find on sale, but it's everything from ready-to-eat tuna kits to macaroni and cheese to cereal bars."
Stewart's group takes the food Garcia provides, purchases additional groceries, packs the bags and delivers them to 30-45 children at the school every Friday. "We have found that the kids have changed from the time we first began," Stewart said. "They were very timid of us, but now they're warming up. They're getting used to seeing us on Fridays, and they smile more."
Changes are becoming apparent in the students' academic performance as well, said Moriarty Elementary School's Gibson. "The program this year has made a huge difference. Test scores, attendance and grades are up. It has been a wonderful blessing for me to watch the entire community and churches working together for these children."
Growing kids, growing relationships
In addition to the weekly meal provisions, Stewart and her group have found themselves becoming more and more involved in the overall wellbeing of the children they serve.
For Garcia and The People Church, the program has opened doors to deeper relationship with the school staff and students. Over the recent months, church members have had occasion to volunteer at events like teacher in-service days and a school-wide literacy carnival. This spring, around 250 people from local schools came out to The People Church's Easter-egg hunt, too.
"Our people had some great conversations with families from our community, and some seeds were planted," Garcia said of the event, adding that, "God has used a lot of my background, and my experiences so align with the community, it gives me an opportunity to speak to them on a level that says, 'I know what you're going through; I know what you've been through; I know that there's a way out.'"
This sort of pairing of locally donated resources with GHR funds is exactly how GHR is designed to work, said Jerry Daniel, executive director of the North American Mission Board's mercy ministry, LoveLoud. (GHR is able to devote 100 percent of resources directly to meeting hunger needs because Southern Baptist churches cover most administrative costs through their Cooperative Program giving.)
"These ministries aren't totally dependent on Global Hunger Relief funds; they depend on local churches and the people in their community, too. GHR is a catalyst to assist those who are doing this kind of ministry," Daniel said. "It shows the importance of meeting immediate human needs as the doorway to building relationships -- relationships that give the opportunity to share the Gospel."