By SANDY CIUPAK
Special to The Gazette
MEDINA TWP. â€” More than 200 First Baptist Church members showed up on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to pack and deliver food baskets to area families.
The annual project began in 2003, when the church first partnered with Medinaâ€™s Community Services Center to provide a turkey and fixings for 25 families. The number served has increased each year, and this year First Baptist shopped, packed and delivered about 100 food boxes in and around Medina.
â€œWe adopted about 80 families from Community Services,â€ said Nancy Gillentine, director of childrenâ€™s and womenâ€™s ministries at First Baptist. â€œThen we asked our church family if they knew of others who were in need this season, and the list grew.â€
Economic hard times mean more families are struggling, so it was more important than ever for the church to reach out, Gillentine said. â€œThis is just one way we can share Godâ€™s love with others.â€
Having led the project several times, Gillentine has it down to an art. About a month before Thanksgiving, church members begin signing up to bring turkeys, make calls, shop, pack and deliver the baskets, which actually are copier paper-size boxes. This year, the churchâ€™s AWANA Club children and the students of Medina Christian Academy held a food drive to supply some of the items.
Blessed to be a blessing
A handful of church volunteers meet at Aldi on the Friday before Thanksgiving, to purchase whatever is still needed, loading up van after van with instant mashed potatoes, canned sweet potatoes, vegetables, cereal, peanut butter, jelly and more. Then they drive a half-mile down the road to the church and unload it. Everything is organized in the sanctuary, so Saturdayâ€™s big day of packing and delivering runs as smoothly as possible.
This year, more than 200 people turned out to help. The Rev. Mark Milioni, senior pastor, took a few minutes to talk to the volunteers, Gillentine gave instructions, and then everybody set to work. With so many helping hands, the baskets were packed and on their way into the community in less than two hours.
â€œSometimes finding the best way to help people is difficult, and sometimes God puts it right in front of you,â€ Milioni said. â€œI remember an old phrase that seems to fit, â€˜blessed to be a blessing.â€™ Because God has been so good to us, we try to serve and honor him by blessing others. This is just one small way to live out our faith.â€
Deb Mast, 50, has been part of the project since the beginning. â€œIt really is rewarding,â€ she said. â€œFrom the AWANA kids bringing their food, to packing it up, to delivering the boxes to the families and seeing their childrenâ€™s faces. Weâ€™ll see kids in pajamas jumping up and down â€” itâ€™s like Christmas came early.â€ She and her husband, David, have always made it a family affair. â€œI wanted my kids to know what itâ€™s like to serve others,â€ said Mast, who has one grown son, a daughter in college and one son still at home.
Emily Bresler was on hand to pack baskets with her husband, Mark, and their two small daughters.
â€œWe love it,â€ said Bresler, 33, noticeably pregnant with their third child. â€œThatâ€™s one of my favorite things to do.â€ This year the Breslers, along with Emilyâ€™s mother, Pam Koloda, delivered boxes to four families.
Carol McQueeney, 66, said she and her husband, Lyle, 75, feel privileged to help. â€œItâ€™s a way God can reach people even if they arenâ€™t in church,â€ McQueeney said. â€œWeâ€™ve just seen the thankfulness in their hearts.â€
Paying it forward
The baskets are received with joy and sometimes with tears. One struggling single father told a church member the box was â€œthe most food Iâ€™ve ever had.â€ He decided to share the unexpected gift with a single mother of three girls so that her family could have a nice Thanksgiving as well. Last year, church members had to leave a basket with a neighbor because the recipient wasnâ€™t home. Seeing the neighborâ€™s empty refrigerator, they went right to the grocery store and made up a second box to take back to him.
This year, a group of middle-schoolers from Brunswick decided to get involved with the project. The Willetts Middle School National Junior Honor Society chose to donate $100 toward the purchase of food for the baskets. Westfield Insurance supplied boxes.
â€œMy heart is overwhelmed with the love I see and feel from the people of First Baptist Church,â€ Milioni said. â€œThe excitement they get from serving others is amazing. It truly changes the atmosphere of a church when you focus on others rather than on yourself. Sometimes we have to learn by experience that it is more blessed to give than to receive. As pastor I am so thankful for a church that is so very generous and giving.â€
Ciupak is a freelance writer from Medina. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.