|Church offers back-to-school supplies, haircuts|
Erica Manry helps Thomas Whittaker choose a new backpack at the annual back-to-school clinic at Belfast (N.Y.) United Methodist Church. In the state's poorest county, the church provides students with free school supplies and haircuts, among other things. UMNS photos by James Melchiorre.
By James Melchiorre*
Aug. 31, 2007 | BELFAST, N.Y. (UMNS)
Visiting the Allegany County Fair in western New York in July, Stephanie Karcher picked up a flyer about the annual back-to-school clinic at Belfast United Methodist Church.
Weeks later on a sunny Saturday, she and her two young children stand outside the church along with dozens of their neighbors, waiting for the doors to open.
Inside, they find new backpacks filled with school supplies purchased and donated by members of the church. There are also water bottles, books and health information.
Volunteer Jill Aronson gives Thomas a haircut in preparation for his first
day of kindergarten.
Everything is free, including the haircuts.
"They needed them for sure," says Karcher of the trims. "The hair's going crazy on us."
The start of a new school year each September is an expensive time, according to Karcher and other parents.
"As they get older and more and more needs are met, it gets harder for the average family that's just barely making it to get everything they're required to have for school," she says.
Scarce jobs, struggling families
Clinic organizers at Belfast United Methodist Church say such economic realities provided the impetus for sponsoring the church's first back-to-school clinic in 2004.
"We felt this was an extreme need," says the Rev. Keith Manry, senior pastor of the congregation. "Sixty percent of the children in our community are below the poverty level. Allegany County, in which we live, is the poorest county in New York state."
Belfast is a community of roughly 1,700 people, with rolling hills and old barns reminiscent of the days when dairy farming provided a reliable family income. Small family-operated farms have largely disappeared; factory jobs are scarce.
Folks here speak of relatives and neighbors who make 90-minute roundtrips to work as prison guards. The closest supermarket is a 30-minute drive away.
"A lot of people are out of work. They have four or five kids each," says Erica Manry, the pastor's wife, who came up with the idea of a back-to-school clinic.
The line for school supplies stretches
out the door.
In addition to providing school supplies, the church provides a signup sheet for parents whose children need new school clothes. Parents check whether their child is a boy or girl and list sizes for jeans and sneakers. A member of the congregation then makes the purchases.
"At least they can go the first day and have a nice pair of jeans and a nice pair of sneakers, and they're not looking different than any of the other kids that might have more than them," Mrs. Manry says.
Third-grader Lilac Wooding gets her hair cut by Jill Aronson, a local stylist who donates her time to the clinic. Lilac's father says he grew up in Belfast at a time when going back to school wasn't so stressful.
"Back when I went to school, the teacher supplied everything," recalls Matt Wooding. "When you get programs like this in the communities, it alleviates some of the pressure on families with low incomes or no income."
Manry says the clinic is consistent with the church's mission.
"The reason we've done this ministry is because it's so true and genuine to the needs of our community," he says. "When Jesus ministered to people, you frequently find the first need he met was the physical need."
Erica Manry believes the clinic has made the congregation more aware of and compassionate toward the needs of their neighbors.
Families sign up for Angel Food Ministries,
a grocery relief program.
"Some of the older people changed their outlook on people in the community, realizing it's not the kids' fault that they don't have (clothes and supplies)," she says.
Thomas Whittaker, getting ready for his first day of kindergarten, is a little anxious during his haircut and manages to divert his attention by blowing up a blue balloon. His sister, Dominique, an incoming fourth-grader, checks out the free books.
Their mother, Stephanie Karcher, says the clinic may become a back-to-school tradition for her family.
"I definitely would hope to be back next year," she says. "It's amazing how people pull through for each other.
"They're life-savers here."
*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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