How many wrapping supplies does it take to prepare Christmas gifts for 375 children? Volunteers from North Oak Community Church (NOCC) in Hays, Kansas, are about to find out.
This Christmas season, NOCC will help Saint Francis Ministries (SFM), a foster care agency serving children in several states, wrap Christmas gifts for children in SFM’s western Kansas district.
“We desire the child welfare workers to have the time and energy to focus on the joy of giving without the added stress and business of carrying this load on their own,” says Stephanie Burkholder, a member of NOCC’s 2018 Advent Conspiracy planning team.
“It is truly more blessed to give than it is to receive.”
Specifically, NOCC will donate wrapping supplies and money for party refreshments and provide volunteers to help with wrapping. It’s the final act of NOCC’s yearlong 2018 Advent Conspiracy project intended to bless the foster care community in Ellis County.
More presence, less presents
Begun at NOCC in 2009 by then pastor Ken Ediger, Advent Conspiracy is a ministry project the church adopts each year.
“The whole premise is to give more ‘presence’ and less ‘presents,’” Burkholder says. “Our goal is to take the busyness and commercialism out of Christmas and replace it with meaningful interaction and worship.”
For the past 10 years, the church has alternated between supporting local and international projects. The first, in 2009, involved sending water filters—and a team—to the Dominican Republic.
“Each year’s project is approved by the church elders and then the planning is taken care of by a team,” Burkholder says.
NOCC collects a special offering during the Advent season from which to fund the current project.
Supporting foster care
In 2018, NOCC decided to serve the local foster care community.
The idea began to take shape in summer 2018 when Burkholder met with Jess Albin, a licensed social worker and NOCC’s CarePortal point person, to brainstorm ways to bless the foster care community. CarePortal is a technology platform that connects churches with needs of local children and families.
“We both saw the intense need for support in this area of our community,” Burkholder says. “From foster children, foster parents, foster care workers, to biological families, we wanted to bless this entire population.”
While numbers fluctuate monthly, Burkholder says there are about 100 children in foster care in Ellis County, and about 25 foster families.
“We have seen the ratio of children to foster homes become worse as fewer families are becoming foster parents and more children are being removed from their homes,” she says.
By choosing to serve the foster care community for its 2018 Advent Conspiracy project, NOCC embarked on a yearlong journey involving multiple projects.
For example, NOCC made 50 “bed packages” for foster children through CarePortal. Each bed package included a headboard, mattress, mattress pad, sheets, pillow and an age-appropriate Bible packaged in a duffel bag.
Albin describes delivering a bed package to a single mother of two who was trying to make ends meet. When the woman’s sons discovered the children’s Bible and asked what it was, the mother fumbled to answer, Albin says.
“I was surprised there were children in Hays, Kansas—in the Bible Belt of America—who really had never heard of the Bible,” she says. “This was such an impactful moment for me. It drew my attention back to one of our main purposes of CarePortal and the Advent Conspiracy project: to make Jesus known.”
Church hosts multiple events
In July, NOCC hosted 30 foster families and more than 80 children for a “Fostering Growth in Foster Families” training event, which included speakers, an expert panel, chair massages, gift bags and a continental breakfast and catered lunch. Attendees earned continuing education credit for foster care licenses, and childcare was provided, with older children traveling by bus to the local recreation center to play games and eat pizza.
This attendee’s response was printed in NOCC’s September newsletter:
“Tonight we are tired but happy, weary but encouraged, typically overwhelmed but hopeful. Thank you for an excellent, positive experience. The speakers were good, the panel discussion was excellent, the food was delicious, and the childcare was brilliant…. It was obvious that a lot of people had put a lot of time and energy into making this a great day for all of us.”
For another project, Albin facilitated a support group for Saint Francis Ministries employees, and the church provided coffee and breakfast, as well as a small gift and card, for participants.
“The purpose of this group was to recognize the impact of secondary traumatic stress (STS) on those working in the child welfare system and to build resilience to mitigate the risk factors for STS,” Burkholder says.
The church also hosted an October lunch for the child welfare agency’s offices in Hays. In addition, NOCC remains actively involved in CarePortal.
Community wrapping parties
The Christmas wrapping party, a project headed by Michele Eiland, will be the culmination of Advent Conspiracy 2018.
Last December, Eiland helped Saint Francis Ministries wrap gifts for children, an event she described as “last-minute” and “pretty chaotic.”
“When I heard NOCC was working with foster care services in our community, I instantly knew one way we could help, but it would take some planning and community effort to pull it off,”
Eiland says. “Starting in August 2019, we have been working with Saint Francis Ministries to streamline their Christmas project.”
As part of the new system, SFM requests gifts be unwrapped when donated so child welfare workers can oversee the gifts.
“We are planning on picking up pre-tagged gifts and having wrapping parties in the community,” Eiland says. “This will give volunteers of all ages—adults and kids alike—an opportunity to love on these kids, pray over their gifts and bring the foster care needs out in the public.”
A generous response
The NOCC congregation has been helpful and supportive of the Advent Conspiracy project, Burkholder says.
“Everyone has been very generous, not only with the Advent Conspiracy project, but with CarePortal in general,” she says. “There have been some families from our church who are interested in becoming foster parents. One of the most important impacts is that it has brought the needs of the foster care community to light.”
The 2019 Advent Conspiracy project, while still being chosen, will be an international project this year, Burkholder says. It will be NOCC’s 10th year to participate in Advent Conspiracy.