Photo courtesy of Rev. Kirk Hagan, pastor of Wrightsville First UMC
By Kara Witherow, Editor
School starts this week or has already started for many in South Georgia, and with the inevitable flurry of back-to-school activity comes the question: how can we serve our schools and students? Each act of service usually has a need associated with it, but at the heart of every action or program should be sharing hope and God’s love. Here are a few practical ways to step outside the walls of the church and minister to the schools and the community:
Pray for the students, teachers, administrators, and support personnel of your neighborhood school(s), and pray for them by name when possible (most schools have websites that include staff names). Pray that love, unity, and peace would reign in the schools.
Host or take part in a prayer walk. Wrightsville First United Methodist Church helped organize a prayer walk at the Johnson County Elementary School, Johnson County Middle School, and Johnson County High School. Church members, students, teachers, administrators, and others from the community gathered on Aug. 1 to pray for their schools and community.
“We are trying to change the culture of Johnson County, and to do that we need to pray,” said Rev. Kirk Hagan, pastor of Wrightsville First UMC. “We are responsible for making it the place we want it to be.”
2. Start a backpack ministry
While school breakfast and lunch programs help hungry students get through the school day, what do children eat during weekends and when school is not in session? To help bridge that gap, several South Georgia United Methodist churches have programs like Forest Hills UMC’s BackPack Ministry.
Nearly 350 volunteers will help feed more than 1,400 students at 21 schools in three counties this school year, said BackPack Ministry director Brenda Lambert, who said that the ministry also provides school supplies and uniforms.
Each week, backpacks are filled with snacks and easy-to-open foods and then hand delivered to each student on Fridays.
“We are not only providing food, but we are forming relationships with the schools, the counselors, the teachers, the principals, and the children,” Lambert said. “The volunteers give the children hugs, they tie shoes. The children know they are cared about.”
Not every church can or needs to serve 21 schools and feed 1,400 students each week. Start small with one school or partner with an already existing ministry.
3. Find a need and meet it
Find out what projects are important at a nearby school and donate the supplies. Or ask what the school lacks and provide what they need. That’s what Epworth United Methodist Church in Columbus has done with Allen Elementary School. The school’s clinic is chronically short on funds to purchase necessary medical supplies, so for the past two years the congregation has collected and donated sandwich bags, adhesive bandages, tissues, cotton balls, hand sanitizer, and small paper cups to the school.
“People were surprised to learn about the need,” said Rev. Tony Crosby, pastor of Epworth UMC. “I don’t think people realize it’s a need, and when they knew about it, they didn’t hesitate to bring stuff in.”
4. Feed teachers, staff, teams
There’s always a team that needs to be fed or a meeting that could use a plate of cookies or spread of sandwiches. It’s often joked that Methodists love to eat and cook, so why not spread love and a little cheer through some great homemade treats (or even some delicious store-bought snacks)? They will be eaten quickly and appreciated long after the goodies are gone.
Bainbridge First United Methodist Church did just this when they baked about 1,000 cookies for teachers and employees of Decatur County schools and Grace Christian Academy.
They handed out the cookies and greeted county school employees at the annual pre-planning convocation, where all employees meet together before the school year starts. It was a great way to say thanks to all of them at one time, Turner said.
“I’m a retired educator myself, so I know what it means for somebody to say thank you,” said Lauren Turner, Bainbridge First UMC’s events coordinator. “We wanted to let them know that we appreciate them and we’re here to serve them.”
5. Provide for personal care
Want to know what needs are in your community? Ask a teacher. They are often the first to know about students’ needs and can be an invaluable source of information. Children who are grumpy and tired in class may not get enough sleep because they don’t have a bed. Unruly or disruptive children may just be hungry. Often, things many take for granted – a clean bed, a haircut, clean clothing – are basic items some children are lacking that a congregation can help supply.
On Saturday, Aug. 5, South Columbus United Methodist Church hosted a back-to-school event with an on-site barber who provided haircuts free of charge to boys and girls.
Folkston United Methodist Church has, for the past several years, hosted a back-to-school clothing giveaway. Primarily focused on children’s clothing, the congregation brings clothes to the church and, for two days, people are invited to “shop” for clothing, free of charge. Any leftover items are taken to the local schools for them to use as needed.
“It’s so important to do what we can to reach out and love the community,” said Rev. Jack Varnell, pastor of Folkston UMC. “So many of our people have been blessed, and we want to do all we can to serve and love others.”