By ROSEANNE SUTTON
Five years ago, Agape’ Mission Director Sherri Smith, began the Food 4 Kids program to provide food on weekends for public school children in need. In March 2005, volunteers began assembling about 150 bags of food per week.
Over the years, that number has grown to 450 bags per week, serving these public schools located in Washington County: Wilson, Hoover, Mid High, Kane, Central Junior High, Jane Phillips, Oak Park, Caney Valley and Dewey.
They also provide bags of food for two public schools in Osage County: Osage Hills and Bowring.
In a recent interview, Smith shared how she became Director of the Agape’ Mission.
The Agape Mission, located at 309 S. Bucy in Bartlesville, had been operated by another organization. Smith was sorry when it closed. She had been a volunteer in Bartlesville for many years, and knew how needed it was.
Her involvement started with conversation she had with her pastor at Bartlesville First Assembly of God. “One Sunday afternoon, we took my pastor out to lunch … and I thought who better to ask than him. By the end of the conversation, it was agreed I’d give a presentation to the church board,” Smith said.
The church board agreed to open the Agape’ Mission again and put Smith in charge of it. She had been a commodities broker for the previous eight years. However, believing God had led her to this crossroads, she left her job and agreed to take on this new role.
“On Jan. 17, 2000, there was nothing but an old icemaker and an old freezer, that didn’t work,” Smith said. “In a two-week period, God put this together. I opened Feb. 1, 2000, serving two meals a day. If that’s not God, I don’t know what is.”
Smith said that the first major victory was that the Mission was able to purchase all the needed kitchen equipment, even silverware, from a closed restaurant in Ramona for $5,000. The church congregation stepped up and provided the needed funds.
At that time, Smith cooked the meals as well. After much thought and prayer, at the end of Nov. 2000, Smith scaled back to one meal a day, which the Agape’ Mission still serves six days per week from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Mission is closed on Sunday. “I think we’re the only United Way non-profit in Bartlesville that’s open on Saturday,” Smith said.
Two and a half years after opening, the Mission was able to hire a cook, and Smith became the full-time director of the Mission.
Because feeding the community is central to the Mission’s purpose, developing the Food 4 Kids program just made sense.
The Food 4 Kids program began in March 2005 with volunteer Rissie Soderstrom as its coordinator. Soderstrom organizes a team of seven women, who meet each week at the warehouse and assemble the backpacks during the school year.
Additional volunteers such as: Church groups, home-school children, ConocoPhillips employees and others pitch in regularly to help. For example, five employees of the CIT Project Services Department at ConocoPhillips volunteer once a month assembling the food sacks.
There is a corporate giving program whereby ConocoPhillips gives $500 to Agape’ Mission for every 20 hours of service provided by its employees.
As part of her duties, Soderstrom schedules the additional volunteers to help. “If you have a group or even children, they can come in and volunteer,” Soderstrom said. Some of the groups that have helped are: Civic groups, church and youth groups and the Boy Scouts. To arrange for your group to volunteer, Soderstrom may be reached at 918-331-7815.
“When people come to help, they have fun,” Soderstrom said. “And we’re not known … We’re behind the scenes.”
Soderstrom also coordinates the unloading of inventory from the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. In addition, she sees to it that double-grocery bags are prepared. God has always provided the volunteers she has needed to help her accomplish these tasks, she said.
Each week, the food bags for elementary school students include: One chocolate milk, one regular milk, one pudding (either chocolate or vanilla), one fruit cup, one juice, one Pop-tart or cereal bar, one package of crackers, one package of sunflower or pumpkin seeds, one individual serving of cereal and one raisin box.
For students in junior high through high school, the bags include five extra items: Beef jerky, Vienna sausage, macaroni and cheese, one serving of oatmeal and one serving of Ramen Noodles.
“We don’t give metal flip-top cans to the younger children because of possible cuts,” Soderstrom said. “Many of these children are preparing this food alone without a parent there to help.”
“We pray over the sacks too,” Soderstrom said. “When the kids come to school on Monday they ask ‘are we going to get our sacks this week?’ Even if the kids are sick, their parents come and get them,” she added.
“Our feedback is positive – how it’s helped,” Soderstrom said. “If we help the children when they’re young, they’ll have fewer health problems as adults,” she added.
Speaking of the Agape’ Mission Director, Soderstrom said, “Sherri [Smith] is delightful to work with on this.”
Sherri Smith said after the program had finished its first year, she got some feedback that hit home for her how vital the food backpacks are. “I received a message right after spring break from one of the kindergarten teachers that a student had returned to school in the same clothes he’d been in on the day he went home for spring break. Upon being asked, he said the only food he had eaten that week was the food we provided. Also, he had been left home alone that whole week. DHS (the Department of Human Services) stepped in at that point and took the child out of the home.”
Smith said that teachers have come to her in tears saying, “Don’t ever stop the program.”
Regarding how they determine which children should get the weekend food, Smith said, “We get our information from the school administrators themselves. The teachers know a lot more about their students. Between what they know, and who is on the reduced school lunch program, they can see who needs it. We don’t want any child to be hungry over the weekend.”
In order to meet community childrens’ summer needs, the Mission will begin a summer Food 4 Kids program on June 4 called Acts in Action in Bartlesville. “We’re going into four quadrants of the community: the Brookhaven area at Girl Scout Park, Oak Park, and near Wilson at the Spruce Baptist Church parking lot,” Smith said.
“We’re going to feed them, have prizes and it will be like sidewalk bible school. Everyone has to have background checks – it’s a big deal. Mary Martha’s is also working with us to provide prizes and what we need,” Smith said.
Regarding her work as director of the Mission, Smith said, “Every day is a new day. It’s exciting going to work because I never know what God’s going to do. To be in the center of God’s will every day – what could be better?”
“I want to replicate myself as much as I can. I want to teach people what I’ve done because I can teach people to do this in their own city,” Smith said.
Agape’ Mission accepts food donations. They especially appreciate monetary donations because the food can be purchased in bulk from the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma so they get more for the money, said Smith. Soderstrom agreed.
Donations are tax deductible and can be made payable to Agape’ Mission with Food 4 Kids on the memo line of the check. The mailing address is: P.O. Box 1085, Bartlesville, OK 74005.
For more information, Agape’ Mission Director Sherri Smith may be reached at 918-336-5410.