If you ask parishioners at St. James’ Church in Hackettstown what they are doing during the summer, they may say to you, “I’m shopping” or “I’m packing this Sunday,” but they wouldn’t be talking about preparing for summer vacation. For five years now, St James’ has partnered with the United Way, the business community, local farmers, bakeries and volunteers in the neighborhood to provide food for children and families in the Greater Hackettstown area.
The Summer Backpack Program started as an offshoot from a school program. During the school year St. James’ helps distribute small packs of food for children to take home each week. The school-year packs are small enough to fit in their backpacks.
Upon finding out that meals supplied in the summer were served at centers to which folks had to travel, and parents could not be served meals to eat with their children, St. James’ decided to expand the program to provide food for children to prepare at home during the summer months. Every two weeks they provide bags of kid-friendly, healthy foods to supplement food budgets strained by unemployment, underemployment, and disability. It costs approximately $140 to feed one child all summer. The program has expanded from 36 children in the first year to 270 children this summer.
St. James’ partners with Weis Markets, local farmers and bakeries, the school system, the Lutheran Church and community volunteers (half of the volunteers are not parishioners) who provide food, time and gifts to this ministry in the neighborhood. In the past, St. James’ partnered with the United Way of Northern New Jersey who provided most of the funding, but as the years have progressed and the United Way funding has decreased, the church had to take a larger role in fund raising. Although the ministry is not promised any funding from United Way for next summer’s program, St. James’ vows to continue.
So, what is “Shop, Pack and Give?” Volunteers “Shop” for the food in a large bulk order every other Friday. “Shop” volunteers shop, unload and unpack all the groceries into the parish hall. On Sunday following worship, parishioners gather not just for coffee, but to “Pack” and they say this is the most fun. They pre-pack enough bags to cover expected clients, currently 270 bags. The following Saturday is “Give” when they provide a large bag of groceries, fresh bagels, farm produce and peanut butter and jelly for each child in every client family. “Give” volunteers distribute bags and in some cases help families by walking with clients or delivering these groceries by car.
As part of the mission of providing care to the local community, the Summer Backpack Program welcomed North Porch as a service provider in tandem. North Porch operates out of St. James’ on Friday mornings. The Hackettstown coordinator, Laura De La Cabada, joined the volunteer team and works with them on “Give” days providing supplies to the babies in the client families.
In recent weeks, parishioners from Christ Church in Newton have made inquiries and are developing a team in Sussex County working from the model created by the people of St. James’ and coordinated by Linda DeLoreto.
“It all started with EfM,” DeLoreto said. Her passion and drive for the Summer Backpack Program deepened from an interplay between engagement with scripture, the needs in the community, a need in the congregation to understand local poverty issues, and the willingness to use her gifts of organization and encouragement to make this ministry possible.
DeLoreto instructs the team of volunteers at the “Give” that contact with the clients who visit needs first to be about hospitality and helpfulness. The most important thing is that they know that someone cares and is willing to listen without judgment.
St. James’ has never viewed the program as a source of membership, but as a way to connect with the wider community and witness to God’s love through feeding people. The church community, engaged in this ministry at every step, has been led into a greater understanding of poverty, but even more than that, is living into their call to feed people.
On July 13, the church gave bags of groceries to 236 children in 100 families. The program will continue into mid- September when the school backpack program resumes. If you are interested in donating or volunteering, please contact Linda DeLoreto at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: http://stjameshackettstown.org/summer-backpack-program.php
If your congregation is involved in a ministry that engages both your membership and members of your neighborhood and would like to share that with the rest of the diocese, please contact the Rev. Ginny Dinsmore, Coordinator for Missional Church Strategy, at email@example.com.