Small Illinois congregation meets huge goal to equip community schoolchildren
Written by Anthony Moujaes
October 10, 2012
The 25 members of Bethel UCC in Cahokia, Ill., had to look outside their own walls when they set out to begin a supply drive to collect pencils for 5,000 students in the local school district. They quickly learned that people are willing to join a project if it is meaningful and simple in its idea.
"People want to be invited to do things that are meaningful," the Rev. Carol Shanks said.
"This is a project that our congregation has done for two years. Our goal initially was – and we live in a fairly impoverished community – to collect a pencil for every child in our community," Shanks said.
Their results are borderline astonishing, as the church collected 9,750 pencils for its 2011 drive, and exceeded that with 12,563 pencils in 2012. That's more than 500 pencils for each person in the church.
"It's sort of taken on a life of its own. It's a very small thing, and our congregation is a small-membership congregation in a struggling community. We tried to find something that could make a difference," Shanks said.
The UCC national office also got caught up in the project, by sending pencils – following the example of UCC youth who collected school supplies for drive during National Youth Event 2012.
"We tried to encourage folks to get involved in their communities through service, faith and justice. This congregation has been engaged as a part of their annual commitment. But I believe it is a perfect model for how we can keep NYE alive," said the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, the UCC Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership Formation.
Bethel's campaign wasn't an instant hit when it started, Shank explained, but the church thought up various ways to expand its reach to collect more pencils. "We needed to spread the word to family and friends and see if there are people who want to be involved in this project," Shank said.
Members of the congregation emailed friends and family to gauge interest in donating a pencil, or money to buy pencils. The response came in from across the country, from people and businesses as far west as California and from other states such as Nebraska, Missouri and Ohio. Shanks thinks part of the reason the supply drive was so successful was its focus on one item. "I think there's something about that where everybody feels, 'I can contribute to that.' It's very clear cut. It's pencils," she said.
When asked why Bethel chose pencils instead of pens or another item, Shanks said the idea came from Mother Teresa, who once said she was "a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world."