Agape’ Mission and its expanding role in feeding the needy in Bartlesville

“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,” said Agape’ Mission Director Sherri Smith.

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.

Agape’ Mission has a truck which then delivers the food to the schools each week.

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.

Asked their motivation for volunteering to the Food 4 Kids program, the team of ladies agreed, “God’s love is the reason we serve.”

“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.

Pilot backpack program, “Food 4 Kids,” in Pawhuska seeks Sponsorships for 2011-2012 School Year

Backpacks contain shelf-stable meals, which the children can prepare themselves.

By ROSEANNE SUTTON

Organizers are seeking donations so that a backpack program called “Food 4 Kids” in Pawhuska, which began during 2010 summer school and continues through the end of the school year, will be able to continue.

The program provides shelf-stable snacks to 42 children in kindergarten through third grades, who attend Pawhuska Elementary School.

Coordinator Kacee Poteet said, “We’re looking for annual sponsorships which will help sustain the program for the entire year, including summer school,” Poteet explained. 

A recent story on 60 Minutes about childhood hunger in the United States underscored the problem. When children come to school hungry, they cannot concentrate or learn effectively. Plus, hunger hurts. Many children go to the school nurse with pains, which are hunger related, Poteet said.

According to Pawhuska Elementary School Principal Beverly Moore, the poverty rate is 77 percent, which is a strong indicator that children in Pawhuska need this program.

It costs just $150 for the 40-44 week school year to adopt a child and the donation is tax deductible, Poteet said.

Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Osage County, Christi McNeil, wanted to lend her support to the Food 4 Kids project. McNeil provided much-needed space for food storage in the Cedar Ridge safe room closet in a temperature controlled environment, which gives the food a longer shelf life.

“Three pallets [of food] fit into the closet of the safe room,” Poteet said.

In addition, approximately 20 Cedar Ridge seniors volunteer at the safe room to assemble the bags of food weekly. 

Another volunteer who is central to the project is Jenny Perrier. Poteet said of Perrier, “I couldn’t do it without her.”

Perrier shared her thoughts about the collaboration of efforts which make the project happen. “I think this is an intergenerational thing — the older people helping the younger people.”

She added, “The school kids at Indian Camp School adopt the [Cedar Ridge] residents at Christmas, so the residents want to give back.”

Poteet and Perrier want the program to continue next year and grow. “We want this to be a program that lasts long after us,” Perrier said. “It just serves kindergarten through third grade now. There are others who ask if there are bags for their older siblings too,” Perrier said. For now, the program only serves four grades, but Perrier and Poteet look forward to a time when this can be expanded to serve grades pre-k through twelve.

Donations by civic groups and individuals are welcome. “It would be nice if civic organizations would say they’re going to give a certain amount each year,” Poteet said.

“If there’s any way we can continue, we’d like to,” Poteet said.

The Backpacks 4 Kids program gets its food at a much lower cost by buying in bulk from the Eastern Food Bank of Oklahoma at their on-line website, Poteet said. In fact, some items are offered free from the food bank, including fresh fruit. The program provides non-perishable food items, which the children can prepare themselves.

The food items include things like: pudding cups, raisins, beans and franks in pop-top cans, cereal in individual servings and juice boxes. Peanut products are not used due to the risk of allergies.

Students participating in the program are told they have won a prize in a drawing and are given drawstring backpacks, which on Fridays were filled with food to last through the weekend.

On the Friday before spring break, the students were given double portions of food in their backpacks to help over the week-long holiday.

If the children forget the backpacks, they still get the food in plastic grocery-style bags.

Parents are notified in writing, and are able to opt out if they do not want the food for their children.

Children are chosen to be included in the program based on information from various public agencies, which serve low-income families, such as Department of Human Services and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

 The Edwin Fair Community Mental Health Clinic receives the donations on behalf of the Food 4 Kids program because it is set up as a non-profit 501c(3) program, Poteet explained.

Donations are made payable to Edwin Fair with “Food 4 Kids program” listed on the memo line of the check, and may be sent to: 124 E. 6th Street, Pawhuska, OK 74056.

Recently, the Pawhuska Elementary School began accepting the donations on behalf of Edwin Fair.

For more information about donating or volunteering, call Kacee Poteet at 918-287-5266. This number accepts voice messages.

Look for another story, coming soon, about Agape’ Mission’s Food 4 Kids program in Bartlesville, now in its fifth year.