By Brett Hetherington*
Over the past several months it has not been uncommon to hear about a school district providing meals for its students who were stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students enrolled in Ohio public school systems rely upon free and reduced-price lunch programs for meals during the school week. So, when the school buildings are closed there are a staggering amount of families who struggle to feed their children.
During the pandemic Edison Memorial United Methodist Church (Firelands District) has continued its four-year ministry of partnering with the Salvation Army and the Second Harvest Food Bank to provide meals to students in need in the local school district. Rex and Judy Stanforth have been overseeing this outreach since its inception.
“We do not have a huge school district, but even so there were students who were in the free and reduced meals program who would go home for the weekend and would not have much to eat at all,” Judy shared. “We work through the school and everything is completely anonymous. The students do not know where the meals are coming from and we at the church do not know who the students are that receive the meals we pack.”
“Everything is anonymous. This is Second Harvest’s policy, and everyone from us packing the meals to the staff members who deliver them work hard to ensure that process,” said Rex, who explained that the first year of the outreach benefited only the elementary school.
“In the second year we were packing meals for elementary and middle school students, and by this fourth year we are packing meals for all grades, kindergarten through high school.” Judy added.
The church has a regular rotation of approximately 10 individuals who volunteer on Wednesday mornings to pack two breakfasts and two lunches and deliver them to the school. They get help during the school year from high school students who are a part of the Interact Club, who are excused for one period of the school day to help pack meals at the church. During Friday lunch periods staff at the schools slip the packages of meals into student lockers.
Among the small army of volunteers that the Stanforths have seen weekly this year is the Seel Family. Parents Mike and Jenny have been serving with their three children this year and have found the ministry together to be more than just a service project to keep themselves busy during the quiet days of pandemic life.
“We started helping in May. Someone at the church mentioned that some extra hands would be appreciated and we figured that Mike and I would help pack meals and the kids would play somewhere on the side,” said Jenny. The Seel children are aged 5, 8 and 11 so it came as a huge shock to Jenny that the children were not content to sit on the sidelines. “The kids instantly were running the ship. They dove right in to packing and running the assembly line. They love being able to help classmates, and helping other people get food.”
She went on to describe how two teenagers who have been going through Confirmation class have been helping out and her youngest child would follow one of the teenagers around, helping fill their basket with food to be packed.
Seel brings one other unique perspective to this ministry in that she herself is a teacher for the school district. She has been able to help sparingly with Interact Club students who would come help on Wednesdays when school was in session, and she has been involved in helping to deliver the meals to the cafeteria workers who would ultimately distribute the meals.
“It is so amazing that we are able to work with the school. Normally there is a division between church and school, but this ministry gives us a chance to be such a guiding light and strong force of support for our public schools,” Seel said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has enhanced the need for this ministry to run throughout the summer, and even expanded the reach during the spring semester as the school district provided meals to students. “This pandemic actually allowed for us to piggyback on the school’s summer meal program and our church stepped up,” Judy Stanforth shared.
The church basement was opened up and each Wednesday through the end of July the Fellowship Hall of Edison Memorial UMC was filled with volunteers joyfully packing meals and praying over them as they were sent on their way to students in need. But what happens in the fall with the uncertainty of school openings?
“As of right now there are no clear plans for what the fall looks like for our school district,” shared Rex Stanforth. The school paused the program for the month of August to allow for the cafeteria workers to have a break after working through the summer to help keep children in the district fed. But the church members expect to continue serving their community when fall comes. “There is still buying and collecting of food to be done, we still need to restock the shelves” said Rex.
In early September there will be volunteers in the Fellowship Hall on Wednesday mornings packing meals for students. And it would not be surprising to find a certain family involved in the fall if the schools have not reopened.
“We really didn’t have anywhere to go once the schools sent us home,” said Seel when remembering her family’s involvement throughout the spring and summer. “But it was always such a blessing that the kids would get so excited to go to church on Wednesdays to serve.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.