By Brett Hetherington*
As the season begins to change from summer to fall, the Bucyrus United Methodist Church (Mid-Ohio District) hosts a Back-to-School Clothing and Supplies Carnival. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the vital ministry continued this year – but it looked just a little bit different.
“This was the 12th year of giving away free supplies,” shared Pat Moore. “In the past, the carnival has been a major draw for the whole community, including activities such as a petting zoo and a dunk tank with the church pastor,” Moore continued adding that in around three hours of time the church would welcome more than 1,000 people to the carnival – with children having fun at the carnival stations outside the building and parents picking up school supplies inside.
Many of this year’s added changes to ensure that families could receive school supplies while maintaining social distance were devised by church members Glenda Leuthold and Sally Ruth.
“We asked parents to pre-register through the church website,” said event organizer Linda Leyda. “This is definitely the age of social media because the response was better than we anticipated.”
Having all of the student and family information in advance helped in planning to have enough supplies on hand. Moore shared that the donated bags of school supplies are not randomly selected for students. “We use the supply lists from teachers in the school district rather than just give away random supplies. In years past we would host a big rip and pack party a couple days prior to the carnival, guessing at how many kids were in each class and assembling bags for those students. There would be lots of people gathered and we would have a blast. This year we had to limit our numbers, but with our pre-registration we were able to pack bags specifically for each student.”
One week before the event, volunteers in groups of 10 came into the church to open and sort all of the school supplies. Different groups were responsible for packing each bag with items for grades Pre-K to 3 and then grades 4-5. Bags were labeled using pre-registration sheets, and if there were several children in the family the bags were grouped together and secured with a tie wrap. A third group of volunteers was responsible for putting appropriate-sized jeans and t-shirts in the boys bags and leggings and t-shirts in the girls bags.
“These sessions were carefully organized to follow COVID-19 guidelines with a limited number of workers, social distancing and masks,” shared Leyda.
One other piece of the bags that was forced to change this year was an important community connection. Moore shared that a few years after the carnival started the church saw an opportunity to do more than just give away supplies. It saw an opportunity to help people connect to vital services in the community.
“Six or seven years ago we added our info fair, where community services and organizations such as the fire department, police department, hospital library and Job and Family Center come to set up displays and share information on what they provide for residents.” This year packets of information from the various agencies were packed in the school bags with all of the school supplies and outfits.
On the day of the carnival cars were lined up an hour before the official start! The police department was notified that there might be congested traffic in the area but volunteers directing the flow of traffic in the parking lot kept things under control. “Adding the pre-registration component solved a lot of our waiting issues we had in the past,” said Moore. “Previously we would have people standing in line and waiting for hours. There were still people waiting this year, but they were able to wait in their cars and be comfortable, waiting only a little while compared to years past.”
Even with pre-registration this year there were those who showed up that were not registered. But the church was prepared.
“We did have a number of people come by that had not pre-registered and we did the best we could to get their children supplies and clothes” said Leyda. She went on excitedly sharing about how many students were blessed by the day’s event. “Only 60 bags were left at the end of the day, but we know who they belong to and where they need to go. Over 300 students have been blessed with school supplies and a new outfit!”
Leyda said the only downsides to this year’s modified event were missing the smiles on children’s faces as they received their bags, and the competition of Pastor Mike’s boys’ team and Pastor Becky’s girls’ team raising funds to purchase supplies. “Seeing the losing pastor get slimed, super soaker blasted or covered with ice cream and toppings was always a good time! Hopefully, the virus will fade away with time and we can try that again next year!”
Leyda expressed gratitude to all of the volunteers who made the day possible for the children of the community, sharing with them one important piece of encouragement that rings true perhaps a bit more loudly because of the pandemic through which we are currently living.
“You have made a difference in the lives of many children in our community and have helped ease a financial burden for the parents.”
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.