Youngsters Helping Youngsters

Date Posted: 3/9/2017

Excitement is building as St. Luke’s UMC Kilgore congregation continues to take new steps to “Invest in the Young.”
Students can relate to other students’ suffering. Knowing some of their fellow students were coming to school hungry, youth group members empathized and even suggested the church start a back pack of groceries ministry. Once the wheels were in motion, two of the youngest members of St. Luke’s Kilgore donated $302-- all the money they had saved – to help buy groceries for the church’s newest ministry outreach.
A Pathway of Defining Moments
The inspiration to feed area students was the latest of many steps St. Luke’s Kilgore has taken to deepen its commitment to school-focused outreach.  Pastor Darwood Galaway  knows St. Luke’s Kilgore has always been a mission oriented church. However, he soon realized that ministry became focused upon the local school district after the Holy Spirit moved in the conference delegates’ heart at several annual conference meetings in recent years.  “Our delegates were moved by a speaker who shared how becoming involved with an impoverished school had given their congregation a new zeal for serving Christ.  Also during that conference, delegates viewed a moving video of a back pack ministry started by Foundry UMC that inspired them to urge the congregation to take student outreach to a  new level.  Shortly after that annual conference, St. Luke’s began the “HOSTS” (Helping One Student To Succeed) program.  “In this program, volunteers go into classrooms where they tutor first through third graders with their reading skills.”
When the church learned in 2016 that the financially challenged local elementary school did not have a safe piece of playground equipment, St. Luke’s was able to purchase a $13,000 state of the art playground ensemble and the school district paid to have it installed.  “We have had a long-standing ministry of picking up St. Luke’s children’s choir members at after-school dismissal, bringing them to the church for music rehearsal, fun, and a healthy meal,” adds Darwood, “but we have made a number of additions to student-focused outreach over the last few years.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
The congregation’s commitment has been strengthened each time delegates to the Texas Annual Conference learned additional insight about youth. Learning more about the conference wide goal of “Investing in the Young,” conference delegates returned to share shocking statistics. They heard one of the keynote speakers share that only 12 out of 100 teens in the United States have a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ and attend church regularly.  “This shocking reality created a desire by our local church to reorganize ministry and focus new energy on the spiritual development of our youth,” shares Rev. Galaway. 
Delegates returned to church with zeal to make a difference.  During one of their discussions, Chet and Linda Garner, brand new members of St. Luke’s, shared that they had started a back pack ministry at Nederland United Methodist Church.  Notes Rev. Galaway, “They provided five children with needed food every week during the school year.  The Garners reached out to Cindy Lindley and Tamara Dean, members of St. Luke’s who serve as principals at two Kilgore schools.  The Superintendent was enthusiastic about the idea so the ministry discussion entered the prayer stage.
A growing awareness of youth challenges over the last few years has inspired momentum to push the congregation into a series of actions. “New ministry emanated from the premise: If our Christ- believing youth are going to function in society as a minority, we need to give them the spiritual tools necessary to stand strong against culture’s prevailing wind,” Darwood recalls.  St. Luke’s Kilgore began creating special youth spiritual unplugged camping retreats where youth were challenged to focus on their faith, and make new commitments to champion the cause of Christ. On one of those retreats, the youth were challenged with the idea that theirs was the responsibility to attack great societal ills; “If not them, who?”  The youth, aware of widespread poverty among their fellow students, decided it was their responsibility to help feed the poor among them.  One of them suggested a back pack ministry that would provide impoverished children with a back pack of food designed to help them get through the weekend.
Powerful Partnerships with Schools
Shortly after the youth began to pray for this newest initiative, the pastor was invited to an evening visioning meeting with the Kilgore Independent School District.  He learned there about the 4100 students in the district and that 62% of them live in homes in need of financial assistance.  Shares Darwood, “The Superintendent, who grew up in an impoverished home, shared that children in our community often go to bed hungry.  She then thanked us for the hope we inspired by even praying about a back pack ministry.” 
During the prayer phase, a small group of ministry leaders decided to place appropriate food items on every window sill of the sanctuary as part of the appeal to accept this commitment.  The food items were to remain in the sanctuary for the entire month and we would pray as a congregation. Niki Chowdhury, director of children’s ministry called Foundry UMC and learned that they had helped create an independent non-profit, Cy-Hope, that focused on the needs of the children of their school district.  “This conversation inspired us to call the Tyler Food Bank and to discover we could get the food at half the price and the food would already come bagged,” she explains.
“We all knew that the Holy Spirit had been bringing many things together for a long time for this moment of victory,” he adds. Donations came in that would cover costs for the remainder of the school year and we notified the school district that we would begin the ministry the first week of March.  Other churches in the community have already shown interest in helping.  Corporate donors are being encouraged to give to a 501c3 via the Tyler Food Bank and earmark checks to the back pack program. 
Rev. Galaway shares, “We have learned many things during this process.  The Holy Spirit makes the United Methodist Church connectional, and all God requires from us is to have a heart filled with compassion and sacrificial love.”  Cindy Lindley, principal of Chandler Elementary School is grateful. She says, “71% of our students are economically disadvantaged and many of our students count on the meals they receive at school. Sadly, on the weekend and on long breaks these students are not getting the food and nutrition they need.  Going hungry has negative effects on learning.  With the back pack program, educators are able to address the academic needs of these students since their nutritional needs are met on weekends and over breaks.” Adds Cindy, “Students no longer have to worry about the meals they will not have while away from school, which allows them to stay focused on their academic journey.  We appreciate and celebrate this partnership because it does help meet the needs of our students.” 
People of all ages within the congregation are celebrating a ministry that will be sustainable for the foreseeable future – and being a part of this miracle.
Adds Niki, “We are really excited about this new project.  We just delivered food to three different Kilgore school campuses for the first time.” She said this journey over the last few years has been a series of God moments.  “At first we were nervous not knowing if we had the resources to help that many students.  But as we prayed about it and researched different options, God provided what we needed and I am so blessed to say that we have committed to filling the backpacks of all 73 students with food for the year!”