By Jessica Brodie
SUMTER—Teachers knew many of their Willow Drive Elementary students lived in poverty, but it didn’t hit home until the day they caught a little child stealing food from the school trashcan.
“That’s when we realized they were really, really hungry,” said Rachel Johnston, reading intervention teacher at Willow Drive and a member of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, down the street.
Johnston and the then-assistant principal began to talk, and an idea formed: what if Aldersgate could partner with Willow Drive and do something, anything, to help?
Johnston took it to her church and within 15 minutes she got a “yes, what can we do to help?”
Now, two years later, and the church and school are enjoying a thriving partnership that helps the community, one child at a time. At first just a weekend backpack program, today the partnership also includes a mentoring program, clothing and toiletry donations, weekly interaction times and several hundred book donations from the S.C. Conference’s Million Book Effort. At the start of the school year, the church held a free back-to-school bash for the students and their families with games, food, entertainment, bouncy house, praise band, puppet show, school supplies.
“It’s a bridge God is building between the church and community,” Johnston said. “I say all the time: God can be anywhere in schools.”
‘They truly are hungry’
Willow Drive Elementary is considered a low-income, inner-city school. Eighty to ninety percent of the students are at the poverty level, Johnston said.
Lisa Shuping, Willow Drive guidance counselor who is also an Aldersgate member and Sunday school teacher, said the students often come to school hungry.
“If they’re not here by 7:30, they miss breakfast, and they will cry if they miss it,” Shuping said. “Sometimes we have to bathe some of them, give them wet wipes to clean up. Some just don’t have anything. One kid told me he doesn’t have a toothbrush. He has to share a toothbrush with his dad!”
Dr. Webb Belangia, Aldersgate pastor, said working with the students has been a true opportunity for him and his congregation. The relationship he’s formed with some of the students has made him care more deeply about what they go through, how they’re doing—they are not a statistic but a real, live person with real, live needs.
“It’s very easy not to care when you don’t know,” Belangia said. “But when you know people, I don’t see how you can not care.”
Shannon Belangia, his wife, is part of the core group of volunteers who helps every Friday. She said the ministry has been a huge eye-opener for her, as well.
“I didn’t realize they truly are hungry. We really had no idea,” she said. “There was a little kid who’d been stealing from the trash can, and the teacher gave him a candy bar, and he quickly ate half and then saved the rest for his sibling so his sibling could have something to eat. We take for granted that they have food, but they don’t.”
‘It makes me happy when I get snacks!’
Once a month, the church delivers food. Then, every Friday, the volunteers head to the school and pack the food, which they put in special backpacks provided to the students and returned each Monday. The backpacks are filled with kid-friendly food that is easy to open, like pop-top cans and tearable packages, which they can eat over the weekend or over an extended school break. After they deliver the backpacks, they spend time with the older kids, doing everything from reading to playing games to generally hanging out.
But it’s the interaction that volunteers say is the icing of the ministry. In the school cafeteria, a handful of volunteers sit at the table, hordes of kids gathered around. Some color and read books with the adults. Others gather around for an amped-up round of mathematics flash cards. Others wait impatiently for their turn to play a round of checkers. “I’m next! I’m next!” they shout, their voices echoing in the large sunny room.
“They just need that interaction,” Shuping said as she looks around the room. “They really need it more than anything.”
Shannon Belangia said the kids seem to really appreciate them, too.
“I just do more of the administrative work,” she said, crossing children’s names off the list as they check out their backpack filled with food. “I don’t get to do the one-on-one time in the cafeteria. But even in line, they’re always excited to see us, and they share their successes with us. Like, one kid got named student of the week, and it was a really big deal. Really big.”
Around Shannon the kids jump around, pulling snacks from their bags and showing their friends what they got. Today, the little pack of Oreos was the popular favorite.
Shalaya, 7, said she likes Rice Krispy treats the best, but the Oreos were still good.
“I get my backpack every week and I feel good! It makes me happy when I get snacks!” Shalaya said, grinning widely.
Coreyona, 6, said she really appreciates the extra food on the weekends and wishes she and her friends could get the backpacks more than once a week.
“I want y’all to get us every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday!” she said, her feet tapping in a little dance.
God is at work
Johnston said the ministry has been a huge help at the school, and particularly with the students’ self-esteem.
“It teaches that the school cares about them, the community cares about them; it makes them feel they have worth,” she said. “They don’t get that a lot.”
Pastor Belangia said serving through ministries like this is what the church is supposed to do, and he is thankful to have the opportunity, which he called a “Godsend.”
“Jesus reached out to the least of these, John Wesley went to the coal mines, and no one is more helpless than a child. They don’t have the capability to pull themselves up out of a situation, at least not yet, but this gives them hope—and feeds them,” Belangia said.
It also has given the church an opportunity to establish relationships with the students and their parents, some of who have been attending Aldersgate thanks to the partnership. And congregation, too, gets the chance to serve in a ministry that truly matters, and to see the payoff firsthand.
The message of generosity and love is hitting home with the students, too, Johnston said. During Thanksgiving week, the teachers were collecting canned goods for people in need, and one of the boys in the backpack program felt called to help, too—and donated some of the food he’d been given.
“To know God is real and alive and working here is exciting,” Belangia said, the happy chatter of students building to a crescendo around him. Smiling as he watches the children, he adds, “I’m amazed to see it.”