Volunteers at Storm Lake United Methodist Church help families pack up school supplies for the coming year during the 2019 School Supply Giveaway through the B.L.E.S.S. Ministry. Photo courtesy Sarah Low.
Storm Lake United Methodist Church is preparing for its 7th
Annual School Supply Giveaway on August 13 and expects to serve about 600 children and youth through its B.L.E.S.S. ministry. It’s estimated that over the seven years, the church has served 2,073 students in the area and beyond.
The B.L.E.S.S. Ministry, which stands for Bless & Love Everyone School Supplies, was started after former Storm Lake UMC Pastor Matt Miller made a comment to lay member and volunteer Sarah Low in the office.
“He told me, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’” Low said. “’ I have all these people coming in asking for school supplies, and I’m going to run out of money in our Friendship Fund because those supplies are expensive.’ I walked out to start filling pew cards and the Lord came to me and said, ‘Sarah, you can do this. Start a school supply program.’”
Low initially hesitated, thinking, “my kids are all grown and married, I don’t know anything about school supplies anymore. That’s for somebody else to do, Lord!” but quickly changed her mind.
In the first year, the ministry served 181 students and grew every year since.
“We don’t care where the families are from,” Low said. “We even had a student from Lansing, Michigan, who was visiting family in the area and heard about our ministry! We don’t ask for addresses, citizenship or income. That’s between them and the Lord and not for us to judge.”
Jeannie Bellinghausen, who is a church member that volunteered during the event and later became co-coordinator with Low, said the biggest reward is to see the reaction of the students.
“The smiles on their faces as they pick out their backpack are wonderful,” she said. “They’ll even run up and give you a hug at the end, and as a former teacher I know that we’re making a difference in their lives.”
Low, Bellinghausen and a few volunteers transform the fellowship area into what looks like a shopping center a few days before the event. It takes about 50 to 75 volunteers to help the day itself run smoothly.
The School Supply Giveaway begins at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 13, but Bellinghausen said that families will begin to line up as early as 5:30 or 6:00.
“It’s first-come, first-serve, so families that are in the know will get here early for the chance for their kids to choose their backpacks,” Bellinghausen said.
The families will line up outside the door, be given a list of their specific schools, and be let into the fellowship area a few at a time. This year, free adult and child-sized masks will be available for those who want them. The students will choose a backpack and hand it and their list to a volunteer who will pack it for them.
“For a lot of those kids, it’s their first step inside a church,” Low said. “If we can make them feel comfortable walking in the door and show them what a church does to help the community, that’s important.”
During the pandemic shutdown, the church hosted a drive-through pickup for families and the Storm Lake Police Department helped with traffic control.
“They’ve been so supportive,” Low said. “One of our Community Relations Officers stopped by and took some flyers and told me that she knows some people that will benefit from this.”
“They’re so busy,” Bellinghausen said. “It’s nice that they took the time to get involved with us.”
Low said most people are surprised to learn that they wait to shop until after all the back-to-school supplies go on sale to prepare in advance for the next year. The supplies are inventoried, sorted, and packed away in totes in a small storage room in the church.
“The room looks like we have a ton of stuff, but it’ll all empty back out,” she said. “We inventory again after the event, which gives us a good idea of how many supplies we will need the next year.”
Low has some advice for other churches or organizations that want to start a school supply program in their communities.
“Number one, listen to what the Lord tells you and follow His directions. Number two, you need to start small. Find out what the need in your community and school is, and listen to that because every community will have different needs.”
To learn more, visit the Storm Lake United Methodist Church Facebook page
, or call the office at 712-732-5458.