Hope for the Hungry makes sure children get gifts
On Christmas morning, children from families living in and around the Belton Housing Authority will wake up to gifts donated to the Hope for the Hungry Christmas for Kids Ministry.
“Christmas for Kids is one of our benevolence ministries for the parents of the kids that are in the program,” said Jen Sutton, director of children’s ministries at the Hope for the Hungry outreach program at the BHA.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Hope House offers an after-school program for children from the community. “We have 50 different kids on our weekly roster at the Hope House,” Sutton said. “We welcome anybody and everybody within the proximity of the Belton Housing Authority complex.”
“Today we are making bird houses,” Sutton said. “It’s kind of whatever we can do and whatever volunteers from the community we can get to help out in their field of service.”
Sutton was first introduced to Hope for the Hungry when she was a student at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
“Most of the volunteers at Hope for the Hungry were UMHB students,” she said. “I fell in love with the ministry and volunteered all four years while at UMHB.”
Sutton has been a staff member at Hope for the Hungry since 2007. Prior to joining the organization as an employee, and following her graduation from UMHB, she worked as a cancer researcher at Texas A&M Medical School in Temple, all the while still an active volunteer at Hope for the Hungry. When a position at Hope came open, Sutton didn’t hesitate. Before assuming her present position as director of children’s ministries, Sutton worked with local programs and the center’s Haiti ministries.
A new Christmas tradition
The idea of Christmas for Kids was born in 2009 when one of Sutton’s BHA families asked her if they offered any kind of service for Christmas.
“It was a family of six, relatively small, but doable,” Sutton said. “I remember going to their house and bringing gifts for them to wrap while the kids were in school.”
From that one family, the ministry has grown to serve more than 100 families from two specific housing districts in Belton. More importantly, Jeff Pedigo, director of public relations, said it has grown in the sense that “it has grown in the relationships.”
“It has allowed the relationships of the families and interns to grow,” he said, referring to the UMHB interns who work with the children.
Fifty to 75 volunteers and sponsors are needed each year to provide Christmas gifts for the families.
“We find sponsors from the community and give them the child’s, or children’s, clothing size(s) and toys they are interested in,” Sutton said. “One sponsor can choose a family with one kid or six kids.”
Often, Sutton said, groups get together to sponsor a larger family.
Sponsors are given guidelines on how the buy and package the gifts, making sure that all gifts are equal in value. Once the items have been collected, parents are invited to come to Hope House to pick up the unwrapped presents where volunteers offer camaraderie and fellowship while they help the families wrap their gifts.
“When it first started, all gifts were taken to homes,” Pedigo said. “Now, with Hope House, gifts are taken there and families come to get the gifts.”
“Wrapping gifts is one of my most favorite things to do in the world,” Sutton added. “To give gifts, wrap gifts — it’s a great way to connect with other parents and share the love of Christ, organically, as you talk about the holiday season and the true meaning of Christmas.”
One week each December, volunteer moms come in to help the Belton Housing Authority families wrap presents. “That dynamic changed the program a lot,” Pedigo said. “Other organizations are not necessarily doing that one-on-one, sit-down-and-visit, join-hand-in-hand type of ministry. This isn’t normal, but very effective.”
Gifts sponsors are required to purchase for a child include one toy valued at $25, and a Christian item such as a Bible, story book, DVD or coloring book and a clothing item.
For families not in the BHA, the Hope House opens a family store and invites those families to come and choose Christmas gifts for their children. Pedigo said since the Christmas store began three years ago it has changed from serving the traditional sponsored family and folks who were late in signing up for the program to include the new folks in the area and any families living in the BHA complex.
“Not only do we need to find a community sponsor for a child, but also we are trying to fill up the store for families to come,” Sutton said. “This is another way for people to be involved as sponsors and gives us the ability to reach more people in the area, more than the families of the kids in the program.”
Sara Billingsley, a senior at UMHB, has been an intern at the Hope House for three years. She said Christmas for Kids is one of her favorite ministries because, “we have to get involved with the parents.”
“We see the kids all the time, but for the kids, we build trusting relationships with parents, one at a time,” Billingsley said.
She recalled a family that the Hope House had helped through the years.
“They said if they could ever give back, they would,” Billingsley said.
As it turned out, their church had raised donations to help that family who turned around and used that money to purchase gifts for other families at Hope House.
“I love to see their hearts. They (families) need a little help and it’s special to see their hearts at Christmastime,” Billingsley said.
College kids do a “fantastic job of bonding with the kids,” Pedigo added. “When a third-grader sees his intern come in, his eyes light up.”