Setting up a ministry to feed hungry teens seems like a straightforward way to help out in almost any community, right? But for Evangelical United Church of Christ in Marysville, Kansas, building a successful program for sharing this #loveofchildren was a surprisingly long and winding journey.
It began when church member Vernita Peeks and Pastor Julie Shields realized they shared a goal in common. Pastor Shields was hoping to apply for a “Be the Church” grant through our Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, but hadn’t narrowed it down to a specific project. Ms. Peeks had recently returned to EUCC, driven in part by a desire to belong to a congregation that wanted to do more to serve people in need. She had an idea from a previous church, to focus on the middle- and high-school-aged youth who are often left out of weekend food programs designed for elementary school children.
When Ms. Peeks and Pastor Shields came together, the dream of “Power-Up Saturdays” was born: a weekend brunch, served at a convenient place and time for teens, to make sure they’d get at least one hearty meal over the weekend (when free school meals aren’t on offer). After receiving the Be the Church grant, they set out to meet with local school officials and get the project rolling.
What they hadn’t counted on was the school district’s very different perspective on this issue. While everyone agreed that it was important to help hungry teens, some of the school staff were honest about how unlikely it was that students would feel comfortable showing up at a church, even for free food. And there were multiple layers of confidentiality issues to worry about, strictest at the high school level, and partly due to the school’s complicated history with these issues. EUCC and the Marysville school were in a conundrum: how to serve teens in need, in a way that would really reach them, without breaching sensitive boundaries? A project that had seemed like a sure thing began to falter.
But Ms. Peeks was determined to find a way. She continued diligently in working to build relationships with school staff, relying on that network of connections that thrives in small town and rural communities. After meeting and brainstorming with several other church members, a plan was formed to approached local food service businesses, looking for a way to feed teens that would be more approachable than a church meal. And through this unanticipated struggle, a fruitful partnership arose from an unexpected source: a local gas and service station company called Kramer Oil immediately supported the idea of this ministry, and agreed to provide half of the costs to set teens up with food coupons.
After months and months of hard work, the idea is finally beginning to take shape. Every two weeks, the school is provided with a set number of coupons for $6 at Kramer Oil. They’re handed out during a certain class period, and while the original approach was to support the same kids who get free school lunches, the project has evolved. Now, teachers hand out the coupons using their own discretion, and they include teens whose parents haven’t taken steps to sign up for free lunches, but who could still benefit from a free weekend meal.
Ms. Peeks makes the coupons herself — a mini-project in its own right that took a bit of time to perfect. At first, the actual use of the coupons has been low, but as it begins to take off, the school has grown in a supportive and encouraging attitude. Teachers and administrators expect the ministry to blossom in the coming semester. That means it’s already time to start looking ahead: to build an even stronger relationship with a new school staff member brought in through a grant to work on community partnerships; and also to broaden this project into a wider network that won’t depend solely on EUCC and Kramer Oil for financial support.
It can be discouraging when our enthusiasm for ministry isn’t met with the approval and welcome we expected. Evangelical UCC has demonstrated the importance of keeping our true goal in perspective: not just to meet our own desire to serve others, but to truly persist in finding the best approach not for us, but for those whom we wish to serve. Creativity, flexibility, and determination won out in EUCC’s desire to share God’s love with their neighbors. As an added blessing, they’ve built a new local partnership along the way. #loveofneighbor #loveofchildren #3GreatLoves