Supporters' Efforts Help Mission County Students
On Friday evening, Aug. 1, Glenmary's St. John Paul II mission in Rutledge, Tenn., hosted a "Back-to-School Party." At the event, Grainger County young people from economically struggling families, regardless of religious affiliation, were able to obtain free school supplies and clothing for the upcoming academic year. This major team effort and its aftermath helped 100-130 students (Pre-K through grade 12), including 30 from a neighboring county. "It was a beautiful experience," says Father Steve Pawelk, pastor of the Rutledge and Maynardville missions.
This story unfolded during the weeks leading up to August. It was one that cut across parish, denomination, and state lines—one that, like a lot of Glenmary ministries, involved the help of many partners in mission and, in participants' eyes, the Spirit's guidance.
In June Brother Craig Digmann, a member of the two missions' pastoral team, took time during his vacation to visit the Blessed Trinity four-parish cluster in eastern Iowa. Since 2013, Blessed Trinity has "adopted" the Rutledge mission through Glenmary's Adopt-A-Mission program, which pairs a diocesan parish with a Glenmary mission in a relationship that involves mutual prayer, financial assistance, regular communication and encouragement, and often an exchange of visits.
Brother Craig met with the cluster's social justice committee, who also gave him generous donations for Rutledge. "Every year we give away school supplies to local children in need," says committee member Donna Weaver. "This year we donated four boxes of those supplies for distribution at the mission." The cluster parishioners didn't know about any back-to-school effort in Rutledge, but the donation was providential in light of the coming event.
(After Aug. 1, children's books and more miscellaneous school supplies arrived from the cluster for future use.)
Father Steve's concerted effort to gather supplies for a back-to-school giveaway was launched in early July, when he received a call from Al Forsythe, youth ministry coordinator at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, Tenn. Al and his youth group had donated school supplies to the Maynardville mission in 2013, and he asked Father Steve if he was interested in receiving such donations again.
The two discussed a Knoxville News Sentinel article that stated the typical family spends several hundred dollars each year on back-to-school expenses. With these economic realities in mind, Father Steve gladly accepted Al's offer and set Aug. 1 as the target date for a back-to-school event at the Rutledge mission—about three weeks away.
Al says that "our youth group is committed to helping others. So for two weekends, they collected donations after every Mass." In all, they were able to donate 51 backpacks full of school supplies, as well as boxes of extra supplies, $500 cash and four $25 gift cards.
Father Steve had also called Bev Tierney—the mission's contact person at its other adopting parish (since 2011), Holy Spirit in Carroll, Iowa—to ask if they could assist in the effort. After consulting with pastor Father Tim Johnson, Bev said yes. And she asked Father Steve for the names of Grainger County students in need and their school-supply requirements, so each interested Holy Spirit family could "adopt" one student by purchasing his/her supplies.
The parish was soon provided with names and supply needs of 31 students, all of whom were quickly adopted at the first two Masses the next weekend. Many other Holy Spirit members donated additional supplies and money, too. And then parishioner Joyce Aden was "moved by the Lord" to drive to Rutledge with her husband Erv and deliver all those supplies-a 1,900-mile round trip!
"It was the most wonderful experience!" says Joyce. "Father Steve is the greatest, Brothers Craig and Joe (Steen) are very dedicated, and that storefront church is so full of love." When the couple arrived, they had the chance to meet some mission families while helping Father Steve distribute reminder flyers to them about the back-to-school party. "They are such good people, and they thanked us repeatedly," she says. The two retirees attended Thursday-evening Mass, helped at the Friday, Aug. 1, party, and attended Saturday Mass and a potluck supper before heading home.
"We've been sharing our story ever since," Joyce says. "We came home much richer in our hearts."
In addition, Father Steve received generous local assistance from Rutledge mission members who could afford to donate; a Methodist congregation and Baptist couple who gave clothing; and Douglas-Cherokee, a nonprofit agency that donated school supplies.
As for the actual giveaway event at the Rutledge storefront mission: "We did no other advertising," says Father Steve. "We spread the news through word of mouth and posted a sign outside our mission church on giveaway day. White, African American and Latino kids from all over the county, many with no connection to the mission, came with their parents for school supplies." Those who helped students find needed supplies at the event—and who served hot dogs, chips and juice—included Rutledge mission members, the Iowa couple, and volunteer staff from Glenmary's nearby Group Volunteer Program site.
"Our supporters gave a huge gift to a large number of kids and their families, and we're so very grateful," Father Steve says. "The Spirit was definitely at work."
This article appears in the September 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.