Sarah Cervantes with her 6-year-old twins Aiden, on left and Norah, on right. (PHOTO: JEFF WILSON)

When Sarah Cervantes moved to Edmond from Michigan one year ago, she knew no one outside of some relatives who lived in the area. The 29 year-old single mother of 6-year-old twins Aiden and Norah was battling cancer and often wondered how she would survive—both physically and financially. She had no job, and school was looming on the horizon for her children. Impoverished and on government assistance, she heard that free school supplies were being given to all children in the Edmond school district who needed them at Edmond, Henderson Hills. Initially, she had no desire to come to a church for help, fearing her own sense of shame would overshadow any opportunity to even gain the attention of someone who might take an interest in her family.

She admits that she “didn’t want to be judged by Christians” as so much of what had recently taken place in her life was, in many ways, beyond her control. Yet with the average cost of school supplies rising into the hundreds of dollars, her courage to at least show up on the Henderson campus to investigate the possibility of help for her children slowly began to overshadow her fear of rejection. Cervantes did not want to become the latest project of a sincere Christian who really did not understand just how difficult her day-to-day existence had become.

“So often those of us who are in need are very slow to admit just how bad things have gotten for us,” Cervantes said.

By the time she arrived, hundreds of parents and children were already in place to receive school supplies. She walked into the auditorium and was immediately greeted by members of the church all wearing special shirts identifying them as volunteer staff for the community-wide distribution. Once partnered with a Henderson member who took care of everything from the care of her children to making sure that they received everything they needed to begin school, she was amazed by the attention to detail and the “genuine interest they took in me and my children.”

“We were welcomed like family,” Cervantes said. “They cared about me, they served me, they loved me—not knowing anything about me at all.” Prior to her coming to the school supply giveaway, she was lonely and felt isolated even in the midst of a large crowd. By her own admission, her very identity seemed to shrink into the shadows as she often wondered what would become of her children should the cancer claim her life. Should she survive, what would become of her life, and how would she provide for her children?

One year later, she now wears a volunteer shirt for the school supply giveaway and is serving for the first time as a guide for a family who needs the help of Henderson’s massive community project. Now a member at Henderson, employed, and her cancer in remission, she points to this annual event as a turning point in her life.

“This is a wonderful outreach to the poor and needy in our community, and I can’t begin to tell you what it meant to me and my children just to be cared for by those in this church who loved me, shared the Gospel with me and helped me through a difficult time in my life.”

A System and a Plan

To observe the annual school supply giveaway at the church is to watch the vision of a social entrepreneur, the passion of a Christian evangelist and the administrative savvy of a business manager combine into a massive effort that served more than 1,000 families in about three hours. From the worship center to stations marked by signs identifying every school in the Edmond district (including homeschoolers) the operation is an exercise in optimum flow that would impress assembly line managers from corporate America to major event planners.

From left to right, in red: Sherry Bridwell, Luke Douglas, Karen Cid and Allison Cid help children select their school supplies. (PHOTO: JEFF WILSON)

Sarah Gunther and her two children (not members of any church in Edmond) first heard about the event by word of mouth. At work in her office building, she heard that “this big church was giving away free school supplies” and she wondered “why they would do that.” At first, she thought it surely was some way to get her “converted” or “baptized.” To her amazement, however, these “people were simply interested in helping us out and meeting a need for us.” She is unsure whether she will come back to attend a service here as she adamantly admits she is not a Christian. “I am kind of impressed that all these people would go to so much trouble to help us out,” she said. “They do not even know me, but I can tell they really care. Why, I don’t know, but I appreciate it.”

Kimberly Lathrop grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition and found a Bible on the back of one of the chairs in the worship center as she was waiting to walk through the supply line with her friend, Kelly, and her four children. Finding the text of Exodus 20, she began reading the Ten Commandments to her friend’s son and explained, “I grew up in church, but I had forgotten where these were.” She plans on returning to Henderson soon and exploring more about how to become a Christian and possibly pursing membership in the congregation.

Sarah Cervantes serves as a guide in the same ministry that helped her one year ago. (PHOTO: JEFF WILSON)

A Volunteer Army
The gym of the church resembles an office supply store complete with thousands of pencils, pens, highlighters, notebooks, crayons, backpacks, Ziploc bags, scissors and gluesticks. There is not one school supply required by any school in the Edmond school district that isn’t found in this one room. As Jeff Wilson, the staff elder/pastor who oversees the entire event, stands and finally has opportunity to watch as hundreds move through the room taking what they need with their children, he is reminded of his own childhood.

“I’ve been in this situation before myself,” he said. “When my Dad died, we went on food stamps and other government help, and I know what it feels like to not have enough money to buy school supplies.” As he greets some of the mothers and fathers who have brought their children to the event, he turns and says to some other volunteers, “I just think the Lord is smiling on this right now and is pleased with us.”

More than 600 Henderson members are involved in the annual outreach, and the goal is for every family to have a personal touch with at least one member of the church should they need further help or desire pastoral ministry. As the families exit the supply room, staff pastors and others are present to listen, read the Bible and pray with those who ask to speak with someone about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some families are overwhelmed with emotion after leaving with bundles of school supplies as they realize the generosity of this congregation stems from something more than a fuzzy love for others. One entire family stopped for prayer as they explained just how a recent job loss had caused tremendous pressure in their lives. For one night, however, they “felt they were among new friends who cared about us and pointed us to Jesus.”

Just outside the door a carnival atmosphere awaits in the church’s courtyard (called the Village Green). The sights and sounds of children running and playing cause even the most skeptical atheist to soften in the face of such generosity. “I came here because I was forced to,” one person said as they declared that they still had doubts about God. “My boy needed stuff for school, and I didn’t know where to go.” After a free meal and watching how his children enjoyed playing with other members of the church, he plans to come back to hear what the church “really teaches about God and all the Christian stuff.”

To Wilson and the entire army of volunteers, this is exactly what they prayed would happen. “We aren’t here only for ourselves,” Wilson said. “We exist to declare the Gospel of Jesus, and I know when we give of ourselves freely for the community where the Lord has placed us, He is honored and we pray this ministry might grow and reach more people. It was pure joy seeing children smiling from ear to ear proudly carrying their new backpacks full of supplies.”

The annual outreach is held each year prior to the start of school in the Edmond school district. More information about the School Supply Drive is available here.