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story.lead_photo.caption Staff members of First United Methodist Church in Maumelle display some of the items sent home to area students as part of the church’s Backpack Ministry. From left are Kayla Tullos, children’s director; the Rev. Aubrietta Jones, senior pastor; and Nick Garrison, youth director. ( Staci Vandagriff)

— When the schools closed March 12, members of First United Methodist Church in Maumelle took supplies to the area schools so counselors and administrators would have additional food items to pass out to students before the day was out.

Senior pastor Aubrietta Jones said the members depleted as much of their own supplies as they could so that “everybody would have what they need.”

Maumelle FUMC had already established a backpack ministry in 2017 that covers four of the area schools, including Pine Forest and Crystal Hill elementary schools, Maumelle Middle School and Maumelle High School. In order to meet the needs of the students, the church is utilizing its already established ministry to provide meals and snacks.

The backpacks include items that need no prep or that children can prepare themselves, including breakfast bars, microwavable ravioli cups and applesauce cups. While the backpacks are designed to help children through the weekends without their free and reduced-price lunches, there are also packages sent home to help through the week of spring break.

When it was announced that school was to be canceled, church volunteers and the staff of First United Methodist Church in Maumelle rushed into action to get whatever items could be distributed over to each school. Jones said these bags “were distributed, and extra items to see the kids through the additional week off were also delivered.”

Each bag costs around $4 to assemble. In addition to the church congregation, Jones said, the church’s Boy Scouts of America troop and Cub Scouts, Walmart, Maumelle Mommy & Me, and other local businesses and groups in the community have been supporters of the program.

“The membership of FUMC Maumelle is deeply committed to making a difference in the Maumelle community,” Jones said. “People assume Maumelle has few impoverished families, but the need in Maumelle is real.

“It is a privilege to help these kids and their families.”

When the ministry started, it served an estimated 15 students at one school. Jones said volunteers come to the church on a regular basis to pack the bags.

Jones said the staff is currently working with the counselors at the schools to determine the easiest way to distribute these bags to students in need.

“This is uncharted territory, but we are confident we will work something out next week,” she said. “We are also seeking to meet the needs of children and their parents, given the situation at this time.

“Many people may find they will take a cut in hours and pay, so we want to adapt to meet those needs as well.”

Kayla Tullos, the children’s director who heads up the backpack ministry, said that after speaking with the counselors, she and Jones left their contact information so families can contact them during the break.

“If additional resources are needed, we would be able to get them to these families,” Tullos said.

“We were already planning for spring break and to meet that need, but that was already distributed. We were just able to distribute more,” Jones said. “It is hard to know whether what was passed out at this point would last two weeks.

“These backpacks are really intended for kids to use them over the weekend and then get their lunches at school. It is to add supplementary foods. But after spring break ends, I would think there would be a need again.”

Jones said the schools are currently utilizing drop-off places for the lunches that are provided. She said that after this week, more drop-off locations will be added.

“We want people to stay inside as much as possible,” said Nick Garrison, youth director for the church. “It is not always easy to get to the drop-off location because they are in their home, where they need to be.

“Really, the goal is for people to reach out to us for help, that people who have been laid off or aren’t able to work during this situation are able to fulfill their needs.”

Before the schools were closed due to concerns over the coronavirus, the backpack ministry was serving 65 students per week.

“We know some of the families that we have served probably have additional siblings and children at home and are having to find a way to make things stretch more than we would typically need,” Tullos said.

She said that right now, the church’s biggest need is financial donations because they allow the church to purchase what is needed for specific families and for larger family groups, “whereas our usual requested donations are geared only to the children in the home,” Jones said.

Jones said that any Maumelle-area family who has a need for food can ask their school counselor to get in touch with the church or may email the church directly at churchoffice@fumcmaumelle.org or call (501) 851-2377.

“We would be willing to help families who normally don’t receive food. They just need to call or email the church,” Jones said. “We would be happy to put something together and have it available for pickup at the door of the church.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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