COVID caught all of us by surprise. When the unprecedented closure of schools came in Red Deer, it didn’t take long for CrossRoads Church to realize that, for many families, food security was going to be a crucial issue. For some children, their schools were providing breakfast and lunch 5 days a week; some even received take-home supplies to cover the weekends. With those doors closed, there was going to be a big problem.
CrossRoads Church in Red Deer AB, has been answering Jesus’ call to show compassion and love to their neighbours for many years. With a focus on vulnerable youth and the single parent home, they have become increasingly involved in the public-school district, comprised of 28 schools. CrossRoads’ Local Initiatives Director, Laurie Whitaker, works to build relationship and trust with the school social workers. They support three breakfast clubs as well as providing non-perishable food that can be given to families whose grocery dollars are scant or may be in between food bank visits. It is not uncommon for Laurie to receive an urgent call from a school social worker who has learned of a child with particular clothing needs such as a winter coat, hat, mitts and boots. The congregation regularly donates food, clothing and other items which are stored until they are able to be given away. At the invitation of school principals, CrossRoads congregation members have gone into schools and laid out clothing according to gender and size; families are then invited to come and take what they need.
When the Public and Catholic schools closed in March 2020, Laurie was quickly on the phone with the social workers in schools where family poverty is more prevalent. She knew something had to be done. Along with her missions team, Tracy Minke, Karen Marriott, and Chantelle Schmidt, she set about devising a plan to help mitigate the food insecurity these children and their families were about to face if help didn’t come.
They decided to provide food care packages for school families referred by school social workers. With family permission, the social workers supplied the particulars of each family so Care Packages could be customized to suit; for example, a family with 4 teenagers in the home would receive a more substantial package than would a home with one elementary student. These care packages contained on average enough food for two weeks for the family. They converted their gym into a “grocery store” and over the next 13 weeks sent out 506 food hampers (which often meant several large boxes), and cared for 1,915 people. 183 volunteers served by sorting and packing–all while following current AHS guidelines–and 113 served as delivery persons.
Part-way through the Initiative, it became obvious that school families were not the only ones suffering. Through partnership with the Mustard Seed, they began to provide care packages for other families in need in the city.
“It was so beautiful to see the church come forward,” said Tracy. “They were so responsive.”
Some days volunteers would notice they were running out of a particular food item. “We’d put out a request over social media for pasta, peanut butter, or cereal–and within the same day we saw the increase of that item in our bins.”
“We felt like it was, ‘Ask and you shall receive,’” agreed Karen. “‘Hey, we don’t have enough apples,’ and there they’d be–in the bin.”
The CrossRoads Cares Food Initiative is finished but Tracy says it was humbling and invigorating to be part of it.
“It puts you in a sweet spot of being grateful for what you have, but also so grateful for being put in a position to help. It was important to us that people would feel dignified and loved and cared for. We were careful to do nothing to degrade their dignity. That could be me the next day. We just don’t know.”
As much as possible they customized the hampers, sometimes tucking in donated colouring books and crayons. One day a social worker indicated a Mother had asked if there could be a cake mix in her box as it was her child’s birthday that weekend. Imagine Laurie’s surprise when she discovered a recently donated birthday cake in the church freezer, a box of donated birthday candles, and one lone bottle of Gingerale amongst the apple & orange juice. Who but God could have planned for that? A further look around produced a few birthday gifts, including a hula hoop.
“Dance away sweetheart,” said Laurie. “God knows you and loves you and we are so honoured to be a part of making your birthday a special day.”
For Easter 2020 a group of friends from the church donated absolutely everything needed to provide 30 families with Easter dinner, including turkeys and pumpkin pie. Another person donated a side of beef. A local family with a greenhouse donated vegetables and fruit. “We loved it when we could include fresh food,” said Karen.
Creativity soared. One day the care packages that went out included everything for a taco night. For Mother’s Day they went the extra mile, put on a 2nd delivery that week so that all the mothers received a potted plant, a special picture and markers for kids to colour for their Mom, and an encouraging hand-written note. For Father’s Day, delivery teams took root beer, sausages, barbeque sauce and chips to all the lone-parenting Dads on the list.
Stories abound from this hamper ministry, most of the effects of which will never be known this side of heaven. CrossRoads is grateful to be a trusted partner of the school district and looks forward to seeing what doors will open in future.
The church is blessed with a facility that includes an amazing youth wing that they have opened to school groups for events, although this is on hold due to current restrictions. Church volunteers also serve in the schools as reading buddies, in literacy classes, preparing and serving breakfasts at breakfast programs, and being in-school mentors. One of the Pastors and other members have coached basketball, while many more are involved in afterschool programs and special event days.
Tracy was quick to point out they are not the only organization helping city residents during Covid, mentioning The Mustard Seed and Hope Mission as valued partners. “It wasn’t all us,” she said, “but we are so grateful for the part we were able to play.”
This article is featured in the Spring 2021 edition of The EMCC Together Newsletter.
Download a PDF copy of the newsletter and previous EMCC Together publications here.