It wasn’t long after Alyssa Harris started teaching at Metropolis Elementary School 15 years ago that she noticed the food scarcity problem among its students.
“Just being around kids and wondering if they get to eat, what they need to eat and when they need to eat it, it kept at me. I felt it on my heart,” she said.
What to do about it was her dilemma.
Then one day at church, she was talking to Sherry Deming and Sharon Burris “and they mentioned a program they were thinking about starting. It was exactly what I’d been thinking the whole time. We were all on board,” Harris said.
They met with other members of First United Methodist Church of Metropolis, and Weekend Blessings was born.
Now, 11 years later, Weekend Blessings has filled its 50,864th bag.
But just barely.
This year, for the first time and its history, Weekend Blessings itself found itself in a monetary dilemma.
“Sharon mentioned a couple months ago that money was getting pretty tight,” Harris said.
And, “when FUMC members learned of that financial need,” said Burris, the program’s coordinator, “they began giving more” and the word got out, “helping us get through this year.”
For the 2022-23 school year, Weekend Blessings provided a total of 5,923 bags of food to a weekly average of 152 students for 39 weeks.
As the program takes its summer break, it’s launching a new fundraiser for the 2023-24 school year.
Project 670 is a reminder that it currently takes $6.70 to provide a weekend’s worth of food for approximately 160 students in Massac County.
Burris said this year’s monetary dilemma was a combination of increases to the cost of food and the number of bags provided. In less than a year, the cost to providing 14 food items to each student has risen 70 cents. Burris noted that may not seem like a lot, but when it’s multiplied over an average increase of 25 students each week, that can take a hit.
Weekend Blessings spent some $42,000 this year — all of it donated by churches, businesses, organizations or anonymous individuals in Massac County.
“The kids are very grateful to get their bags each week,” Harris said. “Some weeks when I’m unable to get them in their lockers, they’ll come looking for me and ask. I know they appreciate it. A lot of them will sometimes come up and give me a hug. I tell them it’s not just from me, it’s a community of people, churches, volunteers, it’s team work and, most of all, it’s God. It’s a good sight to see.”
And as a teacher, Harris is able to see what providing two days’ of food does for students.
“I’ve read that studies show they’ll perform better. I’ve seen that,” she said. “They’re more energetic. There’s changes in their behavior, too. They’re more grateful and positive. It’s a good thing.”
Students who receive Weekend Blessings are identified by school personnel who watch their students and look for signs — eating everything on their tray, eating what others didn’t. Once those children are identified, a letter is sent home to the parent. The letter describes the program is a mission of FUMC and asks for permission to send a bag home. Parents are also asked if there is a can opener, a microwave, siblings or food allergies.
“We want to know if there are younger children at home — if there’s a child in school who’s hungry, the likelihood is a child at home may be hungry, too, so we send them a bag,” Burris said.
Food is purchased on Mondays and that night is taken by members of Boy Scout Troop 101 upstairs to the designated space. Each Wednesday, different shifts of volunteers come to unpack the food and then fill bags with 14 food items — ravioli, soup, beanie weenies, vienna sausage, macaroni and cheese, granola bar, fruit cup, cereal, pudding cup, peanut butter crackers, cookies, chips and oatmeal — to create five entrees, three breakfasts and five snacks to get the children through the weekend. Over holidays and breaks, in case of inclement weather or at the end of the school year, a double portion is packed to help students through a couple of weekends. The bags are topped of with a Bible verse and prayed over before being delivered to schools around Massac County — Metropolis Head Start, Joppa Junior/Senior High School, Maple Grove Elementary, Metropolis Elementary, Massac County High School, Massac Junior High School, Franklin Elementary and Jefferson Elementary — to be distributed later in the week.
Brookport Elementary and Unity Elementary are served by Mt. Sterling Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Brookport Church of God, respectively.
Only Harris knows the names of all the children who receive a bag. She said some of the recipients have changed over the years, but “a lot of the time, it’s stayed the same families. We have such a come-and-go community that sometimes the number changes drastically.”
Two of those bags this year have gone to Carrie Neely’s students.
Neely began as a Weekend Blessings volunteer some 10 years ago “when my daughter Campbell was in seventh grade. Our Girl Scout troop was looking for a volunteer activity to get involved with. Alyssa was involved with this and her daughter was in my troop. She said we could help. We started coming the third Wednesday of the month.”
Neely, two more of those Girl Scout mom and Campbell, who is now a teacher herself teaching fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary School, have stayed with Weekend Blessings.
“I think it’s a very valuable program,” Neely said. “Every bit of the money stays locally and goes to kids who we know are in need. It’s not that we’re sending it to nameless people. We know these people. That’s important to me.”
And like Harris, Neely sees the appreciation of those recipients, “especially the nights I volunteer and bring it in the next day, they immediately want to make sure they can take it home that day. They keep each other in check so neither will forget it,” Neely said. “They really do appreciate it. They ask me about it. They make sure it’s there. It truly is a weekend blessing.”
To keep those Weekend Blessings coming, the fundraiser Project 670 is being launched asking businesses, organizations, churches and individuals to provide funding to continue the program during the 2023-24 school year.
Those who are able to assist can make out checks to First United Methodist Church Metropolis with the memo line of Weekend Blessings and mail them to First United Methodist Church of Metropolis, 100 E. Fifth St., Metropolis, IL 62960.
Burris projects Weekend Blessings will provide 6,000 bags of food next school year.
“I tell organizations, you don’t know who’s hungry. It could be your next-door neighbor. We may sit in church with them or see them on the street. There’s no way of knowing who they are, and for kids, it’s not their fault,” she said. “People think in Massac County, how can this be? But it is in Massac County. There’s something we can do, and we’re doing what we can. It’s a labor of love in lots of ways. It’s doing for those who can’t do for themselves. We’re not making a dent in hunger, but we are helping hungry children get through a weekend. And that’s totally what it’s about.”
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