Church continues annual backpack ministry safely

Wesley UMC in Bethlehem, PA, wasn’t about to cancel its 8-year tradition of giving away thousands of back-to-school backpacks and other goodies to families just because of a daunting pandemic. While it had to curtail many of the usual, festival-like features of its annual outreach event—free food, fun entertainment, free children’s haircuts and other extras —the main event proceeded safely and efficiently as planned, with a “show must go on” determination.  

The church gave away 1,500 much-needed backpacks, socks, and underwear to families from across the Lehigh Valley August 15, adding to the roughly 10,000 backpacks it has distributed since the growing ministry debuted in 2013.

“This year was unique in that we had to reimagine the event to be safe and socially-distanced for both guests and volunteers,” said longtime church member Sue Kiefner, who has led the enthusiastic team effort since its inception. This year the church created a drive-through operation, with safety cones and posted signs, plus stations set up to register visitors, distribute backpacks with other back-to-school necessities, and to hand out cold bottles of water to all who showed up.

All 50 volunteers had their temperatures checked upon arrival, signed waivers that explained the hazards of COVID-19 and were given masks for self-protection. Even the onsite porta-potty was sanitized after each use.

Guests were asked to wear masks when speaking with the volunteers, who stood behind plexiglass stands to provide a safety barrier. “We offered to put all supplies in people’s trunks,” Kiefner reported, “and we created procedures to hand items to people if that was necessary to keep our community safe during these unusual times. My team was amazing.”

A local newspaper covered the event with a colorful photo display, continuing the church’s usual outreach to local media outlets, among its many eager community partners. Meanwhile, church members did their own onsite broadcasting of music and announcements during the event.

“Our event has always been about caring for the whole child and sharing unconditional love with everyone in attendance,” said Kiefner, a communications professional who serves on the Eastern PA Conference’s Communication Resource Team. “This year we couldn’t share a smile through our masks; we couldn’t provide them with free haircuts, and we couldn’t serve them food. But we could continue to treat everyone with dignity and respect, as each volunteer shared God’s love through kindness at each station.”

Wesley’s pastor, the Rev. Candy LaBar calls this year’s event “a great success, even more so, given the difficulties of COVID.

“Our team knew there would still be a critical need for these items, even as students navigated hybrid and remote back-to-school schedules,” she said. “The team essentially had to reimagine every aspect of the event, and they did so with care and concern for our volunteers, guests and wider community. And it was truly a community effort. Donations of items and funds came from community members, church members, local synagogues and churches, and more.”

She sees the church’s motto, “People Blessing People,” as especially timely during this “season of COVID-tide.” And she is grateful for “the contributions of every team member and volunteer who helped us live into that call.”

NOTE: Thanks to Sue Kiefner for providing information and photos for this story.