“Where’s the white van?
“When’s the white van coming?”
“Where is the lady in the white van?”
These familiar questions have begun early every Friday at Haleyville Elementary School in Haleyville, Alabama, since 2012.
For five years, Littleville United Methodist Church (Northwest District) has worked through the Backpack Beacons to provide backpacks filled with food, beverages and snacks for the weekend to hungry students in the elementary school. In the first week in 2012, Littleville UMC sent four backpacks to hungry kids. Then, the number increased to 25, and then we added ten more…and then ten more…and then ten more…
This past school year, this small church with an average attendance of approximately 30 people fed 80 school children every weekend. In addition, they provide daytime snacks to middle and high school students who cannot afford to bring them from home.
In the backpacks, each child receives six meals, various snacks for two days, drink boxes or pouches for each meal and snack and bottled water. For many children, this food is all they will have between lunch Friday and breakfast at school Monday.
Haleyville Elementary School is deeply invested in the program. From the beginning, we realized that this ministry cannot work without investment from the school. Fortunately, the staff and teachers have been excited to work with Littleville UMC to ensure that children do not go hungry when they do not have access to school meals. Teachers, staff, and the school principal help identify students who are in need of food.
Haleyville High School is also invested in this food ministry. In past years, they have hosted an Iron Bowl Challenge in which students bring in supplies to fill the bags. The food is placed in piles for either Alabama or Auburn, and the “winning” team bringing the most items gets bragging rights for the year. This food, divided between Littleville and other area churches providing backpacks for other schools, requires a 16-foot tractor trailer and two vans to transport it from the school!
Littleville UMC also works with generous local partners. All money spent on the backpack ministry comes from donations through partnerships and personal donors. The retail value of each filled bags is more than $15. A local grocery store has provided food items at cost, and another often provides monthly gift cards to be used to buy food. Employees of a local company bring food items every two weeks on payday.
Fay Cummings, who started the program and serves as coordinator, notes: “We spread the word around that we were doing this for kids, and different businesses and industries started giving right away.”
The congregation also works with several churches from different denominations in the area. These churches help provide funding and supplies for the Backpack Beacons, as well as volunteers who help pack the bags and stock supplies. In turn, Littleville helps support their ministries, such as contributing to a local church providing school supplies at the beginning of the school year.
Cummings began the program in honor of her late husband, Horace Cummings. She acknowledges the hard work of all participants and the generous support of community partners: “I can’t do it. No one person can. But God can.” And God does, each and every weekend.
Each week, approximately thirty hours are spent packing, unloading, picking up supplies, packing the bags, etc. On a usual Wednesday night seven or eight volunteers pack approximately 80 bags.
The Backpack Beacons has provided a great way for Littleville UMC to connect with the community and help the children in our town. We can think of no better ministry than feeding God’s children. Each week, children share with the volunteers delivering the food how excited they are to have the food. Often, they share stories of them sharing their supplies with siblings, parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Those stories motivate volunteers to keep the program going strong.
The program shows the community that a small, compassionate group can make a sizable difference in the world. Cummings understands that this ministry has touched many lives and points toward God’s radical hospitality: “God is good. If He didn’t support this program, it wouldn’t work.”
For 80 kids, the Backpack Beacons works week in and week out. We feed their stomachs to nourish their bodies, but we also feed their souls to nourish their faith. It is our hope that, through us, they will be able to see God working in their lives.
If you would like more information about the Littleville United Methodist Church backpack ministry, please contact the church at 256-443-7932 or Rev. Holly Woodall at firstname.lastname@example.org.