These kids shouldn’t be hungry

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Oklahoma congregation feeds children during summer 

By Myra Holmes

When Steve Klassen teased the boy from the Gateway apartment complex about wolfing down seconds on lunch, the boy matter-of-factly told Klassen that he hadn’t eaten yet that day. He and his siblings, the boy said, had to choose either breakfast or lunch each day. Not both.

That’s why Klassen and others from Memorial Road MB Church (MRMBC), Edmond, Okla., spent their summer delivering lunch to kids in this apartment complex.

“These kids shouldn’t be going hungry,” Klassen says.

The Gateway apartments are only about three miles from the church geographically but might as well be a world away. While MRMBC is largely composed of white, upper-middle class folk, Gateway residents are mostly African-American and trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Although residents receive housing assistance, food stamps and help with utilities, Gateway community manager Ronda Derendinger explains that this assistance often doesn’t stretch far enough for simple things like clothing, shoes or school supplies for children. Each of the more than 200 apartments houses at least one child; some house up to seven. That’s a lot of kids. And they are too often literally hungry.

MRMBC’s involvement in a summer lunch program for Gateway fell into place so quickly that it’s clearly not the result of human planning. The idea first came from Donna Orrell of MRMBC’s outreach team who heard about another church serving lunches at a needy apartment complex in another city. Couldn’t MRMBC do something similar?

She and Kerstin Klassen, Steve’s wife, began researching the idea. They knew that the school district provided summer lunches to kids who qualify for the free and reduced school lunch program, but they quickly learned that a huge pocket of kids who qualify—like those from Gateway—have no way to get to the distribution site. So Orrell and her husband, Doyle, offered to pick up the lunches provided by the school district and deliver them to Gateway. It seemed a perfect plan.

But the school program, and therefore the MRMBC volunteers, had to comply with a plethora of government requirements. The day the rules required them to refuse a lunch to a boy with no legs, the MRMBC volunteers decided to take on the lunch program as a church project, not a partnership with the schools. From early June until the start of school Aug. 18, the church prepared, delivered and served about 80 lunches every weekday to children up to age 18 at Gateway—a total of 4,280 lunches over the summer.

The Orrells oversaw weekday distribution of the lunches. “I looked forward to going out there every day,” Donna says. This retired teacher clearly loved meeting and building relationships with those at Gateway: the grandmother who felt trapped as she raised five grandchildren, the teen mom who never smiled, the woman who was beginning to express interest in Bible study. While a part of her would be content to enjoy retirement quilting on her front porch, Donna says she belonged at Gateway this summer.

Soon after the weekday lunch program was rolling, volunteers began wishing for more time to interact with the kids and meet their families. So they expanded the outreach to include lunch and activities on Sundays. Wal-Mart provided discounted prices on fried chicken, and volunteers prepared appropriate side dishes ahead of time so that the meal was ready to go after Sunday services. In addition, volunteers offered a variety of activities; one of the most popular was reading Bible stories aloud. It was an opportunity for folks from MRMBC to get to know children and families from Gateway in an informal way.

“That really is the crux of what we want to do,” says Donna. “We want to feed children, but we want to establish relationships as well.”

Derendinger affirms the importance of the relationships built. She saw excitement and giggles as the children anticipated these visitors who would listen to them and call them by name. In home and school situations in which they are often overlooked, even these small gestures helped give the children the personal attention they crave. And exposure to a different way of thinking about things like education and work, she says, showed the children possibilities beyond life on public assistance. “It wasn’t just about the food,” Derendinger emphasizes.

The six-day-per-week effort took a sizeable volunteer force, organized by Kerstin Klassen. Significantly, some 30 children from MRMBC participated in one way or another, including the Klassens’ four young children. Kerstin says it gave their children an opportunity to put into practice lessons learned in Sunday school. The church’s small junior high Sunday school class also took the project to heart, giving their time, donating toys and even raising funds by selling lemonade. For children as well as the adult volunteers, Steve says, serving at Gateway was an exercise in putting faith into practice.

Funding came from a variety of sources: church members, corporate sponsorships and donations, even other local churches. An article in the local newspaper early in the project brought community-wide interest and additional donations so that MRMBC never had to solicit funds to cover the costs. “It’s been like the feeding of the 5,000,” says Kerstin.

It helped that those who planned the menus and shopped for the groceries, including Kerstin and Cheryl Devoe, worked hard to keep costs down to just over $1 per kid per day. For that dollar, weekday lunch menus were basic but balanced and nutritional: sandwiches, spaghetti, burritos or hot dogs.

Aside from the record-setting heat, the biggest challenge of the summer was dealing with the trash generated. After an early experience in which Styrofoam dishes clogged a pool pump, the church rallied volunteers to clean up trash, and Gateway increased efforts to teach children the value of cleaning up after themselves.

For both MRMBC and Gateway, the benefits of the summer experience far outweighed the challenges. Both hope the partnership has only begun. The possibilities are many: tutoring, GED help, parenting classes, Bible studies, automotive repairs and playground maintenance. “There is more here for us to do than feed kids in the summer,” Donna says. “We’re waiting to see what opens up.”

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