Osceola UMC hosts school supply event to meet 'extraordinary need'

Osceola UMC hosts school supply event to meet 'extraordinary need'

August 25, 2023

Submitted by Amy Johnson, Pastor of Osceola United Methodist Church

This past school year, 31% of Iowa schools had a rate higher than 50% of students participating in the free or reduced school lunch program, including all three of the Clarke Community Schools, both East Union schools, both Central Decatur schools, and both Mormon Trail Schools. Our area schools are a hot spot of rural poverty in Iowa.

Parents, most having struggled all summer, are preparing to send their children back to school in just a few short weeks. But will they be ready? How can the church help?

To help ease the transition and put the kids on the best track for future success, Osceola United Methodist Church recently hosted a backpack and school supply giveaway, along with a school clothes voucher program for families. We have done this event in various ways over the past several years, thanks to the original ideas and support of one of our saints, Fern Underwood.

This year, though, we focused on hospitality and personal touches. Our coordinator, Stacey Feehan, shared that making everyone feel like they matter is a priority. She was able to secure funding from the church and various community groups to ensure that there was enough for everyone. The need was extraordinary this year, with an unexpected 19.5% increase from last year. The church distributed 380 filled backpacks, 62 more than last year, representing nearly a full quarter of the students in Clarke County, as well as some from surrounding districts. We do not require financial information or ID, citizenship, or other information that can make participants feel like they are unworthy. Instead, we nurture an environment of hospitality for all, and we encourage normalization that makes everyone feel at home meeting the needs of their families. 

One of our retired teachers greets each family at the door and listens to them as they share the highlights of the summer.  We want everyone to know they are loved before they even walk in the door. Translation by familiar faces is provided for families more comfortable with Spanish. We thank each participant for coming and for being great parents and guardians for their students by making sure they are ready for school. We share information about any other resources that are available during the back-to-school season that may be of interest, as well.

This year, we were able to share about the free potatoes dropped off at Cross Ministries that day, about the clothing vouchers, and about the Back-to-School Fair at the school coming up.  The goal is not just to help people in our community, but to also allow them to receive with dignity and pride and to be able to feel like they are a part of something that helps others. No one should have to feel like they are begging to send their kids to public school, so we treat our families with the utmost respect when they come.

Overwhelmed by the response this year, the church was also able to provide some additional supplies to individual classrooms and schools in the county to help with the need, in conjunction with the school officials.  While we rejoice in our ability to coordinate and share in this effort, together with amazing community volunteers and Cross Ministries, a local resale store that cares for the redemption of the vouchers, the church laments the need for it.

Southern Iowa has seen some economic struggles in the past few decades that are real challenges for our neighbors and friends. The people who participate are not strangers; they are friends. It is heartbreaking to know that so many are struggling in our community day-to-day, just to provide the essentials to get by until tomorrow.

Thankfully, community organizing is a strength of our congregation, and we have a heart for loving each other through these hard times. We are not doing ministry for the community; we are ministering with one another within our community. 

This ministry meets our congregation's goals of supporting the growth of youth and children’s ministry; fostering an environment of hospitality for all; and engaging in meaningful community connections. It meets our circuit’s shared values of Connection and Community, Mission, Children and Families, Clear and Accessible Communication, and Fellowship/Mutual Care in South Central Iowa.

If your church is looking for ideas to help your neighbors and friends in this difficult economic environment, Osceola UMC would love to share stories of what works here and in other churches in our circuit. Our congregation prides itself on mission and community connection. We are all in this together!