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story.lead_photo.caption From left, volunteers Melissa Rogers, Brooke Ramsey, Eva Ramsey and Nancy Cummings help package and distribute donated food from McAlister’s Deli in Russellville. The food was distributed to area first responders and the River Valley Food 4 Kids food bank

— The Arkansas Baptist State Convention planned to host the Inspire Women’s Conference on March 14 at First Baptist Church in Russellville.

Andrea Lennon, the women’s-ministry specialist at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, said the annual event draws women from across Arkansas, with 950 women registered to attend. Unfortunately, the event had to be canceled because of concerns over the coronavirus.

“Since the food was already ordered, we started talking about creative ways to help others during this unprecedented time,” Lennon said. “McAlister’s Deli [in Russellville] and First Baptist Church in Russellville jumped into action and helped the Inspire Leadership team develop a plan to connect the lunches with emergency personnel, as well as children in the River Valley area.

“The emergency personnel are on the front lines fighting this horrible virus and risking their safety to ensure ours. We wanted to honor their commitment and celebrate their courage.”

Lennon said many of the 950 Arkansas Baptist women donated their registration fees to cover the cost of the lunches. McAlister’s Deli even donated extra lunches to make sure all the needs in the area were met. On March 14, the day Inspire was scheduled to take place, volunteers from First Baptist Church loaded vans with lunches and cases of water and “took to the streets, blessing people” while distributing the lunches, she said.

“We wanted to let the first responders know we were praying for them and were grateful for their sacrifice,” Lennon said.

She said it is important to the ABSC to acknowledge the emergency personnel, First Baptist Church in Russellville, McAlister’s Deli and the women from across Arkansas who donated money to make this project happen.

Drew Brent, general manager of McAlister’s Deli, said the heart of the franchise “is to serve our people in all ways, and helping to feed our first responders and children is an honor we are thankful for.”

“I am thrilled we had the opportunity to bless members of our community during this unprecedented situation,” Brent said. “We will forever be grateful for First Baptist Church and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for partnering with us and making this possible.

“We can’t do what we do without our community and the extraordinary people who live here.”

He said the coronavirus outbreak forced the organizers to cancel the conference, and the restaurant was left with nearly $10,000 in additional product.

“The decision was made to allow for the purchase of at least the majority of food to be distributed among first responders and people in need,” Brent said. “We donated 50 additional lunches to the cause, but the amazing thing was the compassion, grace and selflessness I witnessed among the volunteers at First Baptist.”

He said that within 24 hours, a team was assembled to help prepare and distribute more than 650 meals to first responders and residents.

“I’m so thankful God blessed me with the opportunity to see this in action,” Brent said. “It gives me hope that our community and our country are not bound by our divisions but can truly be a community of unity.”

Kristi Moore, co-owner of the restaurant, said “our communities are the most important aspect of our lives, be it business or personal.”

“When an opportunity arises to serve our first responders and our children, we will jump at the chance when we’re able,” Moore said. “Even in times of struggle, we can rely on each other. That’s the heart of who we are as a franchise and as people.”

Lennon said that when the original plan for the conference didn’t work out, “we trusted that God had a bigger and better plan.”

“Giving back for us means being a part of what God is doing in the River Valley area,” Lennon said. “Even though we were disappointed about the situation we faced, we were excited about the chance to share God’s hope and love with people serving on the front lines and risking their safety to protect ours.

“This opportunity meant the world to us.”

“We have great teams and great partners in all six of our Arkansas communities, and things like this prove it,” said Scott Simmons, operations manager for McAlister’s Deli. “Adversity shouldn’t stop us from serving our communities when we can, and I’m proud of our Russellville location and its partners for making the great effort to do so.”

Lennon said that during times of crisis, helping others “allows us to take our focus off ourselves and our uncertain future.”

“Instead of focusing on what is missing or what is unknown, we have the chance to focus on what we do know,” Lennon said. “We know that worrying doesn’t help the situation. … Because we trust God and want others to have that same assurance, uncertain times provide a perfect time to find practical ways to help others during a time of need.”

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

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