By Brett Hetherington*
Crawford County is among the poorest counties in the state of Ohio. Knowing this, folks from Bucyrus United Methodist Church (Mid-Ohio District) decided they could do something to assist parents in the community defray the cost of sending their children to school each fall. They started a school-supply-give-away tradition that has lasted longer than some of the children they have served have been in school.
“We have been doing this for at least 13 years in various forms,” shared Glenda Leuthold, who serves as the chair of the ministry. “Normally we would host a carnival with an informational fair that features the area hospital, the YMCA, and a lot of other services and organizations that offer so much for families.”
This carnival-style event grew from a simple idea of giving children something to do while their parents were picking up the bags of supplies shared Pat Moore. “Back when we began, we were at Grace United Methodist, right next to the elementary school. We had such a great response to giving away minor school supplies that we decided to keep doing it. We started adding in mini carnival games, putt-putt golf, some animals … all things to keep kids engaged while their parents picked up their new school supplies.”
Over time, Grace UMC merged with two other United Methodist churches to become Bucyrus United Methodist Church, and the carnival grew to include an information fair.
“We invited a lot of the organizations in the community to set up with us and provide information to families. The library, Fire Department, Police Department, YMCA, a local recovery program and many others were happy to join up and help families connect to what these organizations could provide,” said Moore.
An undertaking such as this requires a lot of hands to make things run smoothly. “We regularly have 70-plus volunteers who help us with everything, from planning and purchasing supplies, to packing and handing them out,” said Moore.
“If someone offers to help, we bring them in. If we have a lot of people on the day, we give tote bags out. It just means we have an assembly line, and some people only have to take a couple steps,” added Linda Leyda, another volunteer involved in making everything run smoothly.
Moore shared that with the county being on the poorest end of the spectrum in the state, it means that around 75% of students qualify for free school meals. It also means that a fair amount of the population of the area is transient, forced to move along to new living accommodations when funds run out for rent. “Those early days of gratitude for simple school supplies like crayons and rulers were a real eye-opener for us,” she said.
Currently in the tote bags that Bucyrus gives away are school supplies that are specific to the needs of a student according to their grade. “We had some teachers get involved and they really knew what students needed,” added Moore. There is also a brand-new back-to-school outfit. “Each boy receives a new pair of pants and a graphic tee, and each girl receives a pair of leggings and a graphic tee,” shared Leuthold.
Church leadership appreciates the tremendous support it receives for this ministry from individuals, local businesses, and one national franchise.
“Each year we receive a $1,000 grant from Walmart to use toward purchasing supplies for our give-away,” said Leuthold. “Of course, we go right back and spend a lot of it at Walmart, but it is really cool that they offer this support to us.”
There are also some more personal connections that make supplies appear according to Leuthold. “There is a woman in Kent who we call our angel. She will ask us ‘What do you need?’ and when we tell her she orders it for us. Shirts, jeans – whatever we need, she orders it and gets it here for us.”
This year’s school-supply-give-away was hosted at Bucyrus UMC’s worship center as a drive-through event. Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 forced the church to be unable to host a carnival, but volunteers were still able to operate a drive-through event at their old location, and that gave the team some plans moving forward.
“The biggest benefit of COVID was that it forced us to change a little bit,” said Leuthold. “We went to an online registry, and previously we were operating completely on a walk-up setup. This makes things flow so much quicker and easier, and for families who cannot get online to use the form they can still call the church office and sign up that way.” This greatly helps to streamline the process of distributing an estimated 400+ supply bags that are given out each year.
The Rev. Rebecca Stephens is hopeful for the future of both this outreach and the church, as they weather the storm of COVID. “We are growing. We have a lot of visitors, and right now is a great time in the life of the congregation. This church has been wonderful, in their giving and in their attendance. You can tell that just by looking upstairs. Nobody has to take more than two steps today. It’s a fire brigade getting these bags out to the families. There’s so many people volunteering, and every single person who wants to volunteer is utilized.”
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.