By Anna Ferraro
Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” If that’s the case, then I present that spread across Jacksonville are pieces of societal gold. Led by Pastor Don Jackson of Grace United Methodist Church, Brad and Sandy Heaton, Louise Corder, Larry Speakman, Sam and Sue Sheets, and Squire Prince, there is a dynamic team of individuals that is united and determined that the underprivileged children of Jacksonville should not go to bed hungry … or go through their summer days hungry.
Along with a host of volunteers, the team mentioned above launched a summer program called “Take it to the Streets” – a plan to nourish the children of Jacksonville school districts during the summer months when they have no access to a school cafeteria, and their home situation doesn’t provide the meals they need. Sandy Heaton recently shared some quotes on behalf of the team regarding their program, saying, “We also are building relationships with the kids and letting them know we care.”
The program began in the summer of 2017 when they served lunches to 8,700 children. With numbers almost doubling in 2018, the team prepared a whopping 16,500 sack lunches. 2019? Let’s just say that numbers are growing, and the team is gearing up for more.
Heaton shared, “The original program was for anyone who needed a lunch to come to the church. The first year, the church affiliated with the state program and it continued for a few years. Then it was decided to go to the community and where there was a need.”
As the team looks back on where they were when they started this journey, and where it has brought them today, they share, “Having a community partnership with individuals, churches, business and organization volunteers have been amazing. We had 302 evening volunteers and 50-day volunteers in the summer of 2018. The contributions have been very significant to the program.”
How do 16,500 sack lunches come together? We’re glad you asked. Heaton shares, “Volunteers get together on Sunday evenings, beginning June 9, at 4 p.m. and Monday through Thursday evenings at 5:30 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church. We prepare the sack lunches and put in labeled site containers and refrigerate. We have volunteers from 3-95 years young helping us make the lunches and we need approximately 40 volunteers each night.”
What’s in the lunches? Heaton continues, “The sack lunches consist of fresh fruit and veggies, a protein and grain. The favorite sandwich is the peanut butter and jelly and we provide lettuce salads on Fridays with a boiled egg and Go-Gurt. We are also grateful to get popcorn on Wednesdays from the local movie theaters.”
Once assembled and packed, the day volunteers deliver the containers to their site locations and hand out the lunches to the hungry children. All day, the background-checked volunteers work directly with the children – giving them nourishment in a sack and showing love through their smiles.
From Vas and Walnut Housing Units, Northwood MHC, Greenbriar Apartments, and this summer, Washington School and a site near the South Jacksonville Elementary School, the “Take it to the Streets” team spreads out with their thousands of sack lunches in tow. Heaton adds, “We also provide lunches for The Salvation Army day camp and students attending summer school.”
When asked about something that makes the whole team think, “This is why we do what we do,” they responded. “Seeing the faces of the children and knowing we are helping families in the Jacksonville community [is so rewarding]. Also, seeing the enthusiasm of the volunteers on helping the children
[is a true highlight]
While the former state program was rather restrictive, this private program allows the team to communicate with the children and include people from all over Jacksonville who, “feel that this is the program they want to help.”
In closing, the team says, “We thank the community for their support and involvement in the program.” And all are welcome to join in! While the lunches are packed at Grace United Methodist Church, it is a community-wide program.
If you as an individual, business, organization or church would like to volunteer, contact Sandy Heaton at 217-322-3239 or Grace United Methodist Church at 217-245-9521. Financial donations can be sent to Grace United Methodist Church with “Take It To The Streets” in the memo.