There are many heart-warming stories about how people have stepped up during the pandemic and provided meals to those in need – whether through food pantry donations or drive-through meal pick-ups. The monetary support and food contributions from members of the Conference and from their communities have been inspirational. But it’s nice to remember that many of these ministries were started before the health crisis – and have been helping out communities in need for years.
Shortly before the pandemic became news, a Connecticut church decided to go beyond collecting the food pantry staples, and began a birthday supplies drive. The Birthday Bag project idea was brought to the Ellington Congregational Church, UCC by Elaine Duckett, a member of the Missions team. Even before the pandemic hit, she thought about how hard it is to pay for the "extras" when one is struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, and how heartbreaking it would be to not be able to provide your child a birthday party because of these difficult choices.
Members of the congregation were encouraged to create a birthday bag during the month of their own birthday that would be delivered to the Cornerstone Foundation, a local faith ministry with a mission to keep all people safe, fed, housed and clothed. Included in the bag are a box of cake mix, frosting, candles, plates, cups, napkins, and some kind of party favors or party accessories.
The bag collection began, but then the pandemic hit, and everything was shut down so the program was put on hold – especially because the church did not want to encourage birthday parties during the health crisis. The few bags that were collected in that short period of time were delivered to the Cornerstone ministry.
The decision to halt the collection was reversed, however, after Duckett visited Cornerstone and spoke with one mother who received a bag for her son's birthday. The woman was in tears because she didn't know how she would have celebrated his birthday without that help.
The director of the Cornerstone Clothing Bank (which is distributing the bags) notes that the number of families that are utilizing services of the Cornerstone Foundation have increased tremendously during the pandemic. This motivated the church to resume the project. “Even if children can't have a traditional birthday party with their friends, they should get to have a celebration with their families,” said Tammie Mangold, a member of Board of Missions.
Church members have delivered a dozen birthday bags so far and have another 14 ready to go. The Board of Missions also purchased several birthday party sets and told members that if they can’t complete a whole bag, they can just buy the cake mix and frosting and the Board will take care of the rest.
Because there has been no service in the Sanctuary since March, the team had to get creative in collecting the party goods. They combined the birthday bag collection with their general food collection. Mangold drives around town once a week and collects members’ donations to Cornerstone. Donors notify Mangold by email and then put bags on their porches, so collection is completely contactless, although Mangold sometimes does get to speak with folks from a distance.
“I think this is one way to help people feel connected during these difficult times,” she said.
Dr. Jay Terbush (whose birthday was in September) donated a bag for a preschool age boy: Avenger's character napkins, plates and cups, plus cake and frosting.
“At this season of the year we are celebrating the birth of one whose life changed and continues to change the world. Jesus embodied compassion and justice through his life and teachings. In honor of Jesus' birthday the church for 2,000 years has encouraged people to give gifts that make life for someone else a little bit better,” said Terbush.
“I think we all can agree that gift giving for family members has gotten more than a bit out of hand with so much emphasis on ‘whatcha gonna get?’ instead of a focus on ‘what are you going to give?’ The church that follows Jesus' example, encourages us all to ask: what am I going to do to benefit someone else, to make someone else's life a little better, a bit happier, offering a small measure of hope and demonstrating what happens when we truly love one another.”
“We believe this is a good thing to do because it provides joy to the child who receives it and to the parent who doesn't have to say, ‘Sorry, not this year,’ to their precious child on his or her birthday,” said Mangold. “Why not thank God for your birthday, by preparing such a birthday celebration bag for a kid who might not have such a party?”
“The birthday bags are an expression of love for God and love for other people – all of whom are created in God's image,” said Terbush. “Birthday bags help bring love into the world!”
Tammie Mangold can be contacted at the church office at 860-871-6606 (answering machine) or email Secfirstname.lastname@example.org. Visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ellingtoncongregationalchurchucc.