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The Storm Lake United Methodist Church is now in its fourth year with BLESS, a special program that provides school supplies for children in the area. An acronym for Bless and Love Everyone School Supplies, the program has been a blessing indeed for everyone it has touched.
Listening to the Lord
It all started when Storm Lake member Sarah Low found out that parents were coming to the church asking for help purchasing school supplies, but there were no funds available to purchase them. As an introvert, putting offering envelopes and pens in the pews each week was Sarah’s preferred way of volunteering—but she couldn’t stop thinking about how important it was for these children to have school supplies. “It was like the Lord just kept saying, ‘You need to do this, these kids need help’,” says Sarah. “I kept saying, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong person here!’”
Ultimately, though, this “God moment” convinced Sarah that this was something that needed to be done and she had to be the one to take the lead. Her plan to get donations and then purchase the supplies needed was a big success. That first year, in 2016, they ended up giving out supplies to 181 students. “Since then, we are now up to 500,” she says. She is also now joined by three others who help organize the program, plus an estimated 75 other volunteers who contributed to the effort this year.
Providing students with the supplies they need
BLESS is different from similar initiatives because it’s tailored to what the students need. “We get ahold of the school supplies lists each year from Storm Lake and the surrounding communities, so we know what is necessary,” explains Sarah. “We then shop, and based on how many students we believe may come, we try to get everything on their list from the backpacks to the baby wipes to the towels that they lay on at rest time to Clorox wipes, Ziplocks, pencils, paper, everything.”
The need is significant. “This year we had students from 13 different school districts come,” she notes. Parents and students were lining up at 5:30 in the morning, three hours before they even began handing out the supplies. It’s first-come, first-served, and there are no questions or paperwork. They trust that people who are this motivated to get the supplies genuinely need them.
“We cannot tell by looking at someone whether their parents just lost their job last week, or whether there’s a lot of medical bills coming in, or whether their income is just not high enough to pay for school supplies. We don’t judge. We just bring them in and give them what they need,” she explains.
The joys of giving and receiving
The response they’re getting has been incredible. “It’s a thing of beauty, to see the kids’ faces,” Rev. Phil Webb marvels. “The kids with joy on their faces looking at the piles of backpacks and all the different colors.” BLESS is also unusual in that it allows students to choose their own backpack, which gives them the chance to start the school year with something more personalized.
“They quite literally have jumped for joy. They have gone to walk out of our Family Life Center and turned around, a group of them, and yelled ‘Thank you!’ We have had parents come in, in tears, and say ‘What you have done for my child has changed their life,’” says Sarah.
“By helping a student have what they need to be successful in school and have the pride, even in their backpack, and walking in that first day and having everything on their list, it helps them become successful in school,” she asserts. “And by becoming successful in school, that radiates on throughout their life.”
Rev. Webb adds, “They don’t have to worry about not having something. If you don’t worry, you can concentrate better.”
The reverend emphasizes the value of outreach. “We are reaching out so people know we care, and when people know you care, they trust you. That’s how the church is impacting.”
Sarah points out that the program is being noticed throughout the area. “We’re getting more and more support from the community because they’ve seen that this is continuing and it’s successful, and it is really beneficial for this area in Northwest Iowa.”
Backpack bargain hunting
Praising Sarah and her team, Rev. Webb brags, “She’s a bargain shopper too, let me tell you!” She just proved it recently when she noticed a bin of backpacks on clearance at a local Wal-Mart:
“So I find a manager, and then I find another manager, and then they find their manager’s manager. We get to the top and I said, ‘If I buy ‘em all, what can you do for me?’” she recalls. “The total was just short of $500, for an average cost of $1.91 apiece. So I get on the horn and call my husband who’s at work 25 miles from here. ‘Honey, you gotta come home, bring the pickup, I just bought 500 backpacks!’”
Of course, the next step was getting them paid for. “This weekend I went into the congregation and I said, ‘Okay, here’s what I did. I had faith in you all – I need some money now!” Sarah laughs. She’s confident there will be enough funds to cover what she spent. “The congregation really gets behind this program. Without their support, it couldn’t be done.”
Although she spends hours every week on BLESS, Sarah fully believes it’s worth it. “I never could have imagined so many tears flowing out of my eyes, out of happiness and joy, from doing what the Lord wants us to do – helping others.”