By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Each year, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Vestavia Hills celebrates Ascension Day, which occurs 40 days after Easter.
Last year’s annual Food Truck Rally had to be canceled because of the pandemic, but this year the event was back with a new cause.
On May 13, local food trucks and about 600 guests gathered at the church to celebrate Ascension Day and to support the church’s Backpack Program, which provides weekend meals to food insecure students at Vestavia Hills Elementary School.
More than $4,000 was raised for the program.
“Sometimes people say a prayer before they have this great meal, and they say keep us mindful of the needs of others,” the Rev. Jack Alvey, rector of Ascension, said. “This is a way that we can have a great meal and a great time but also contribute to a meal for someone who has to go without.”
Though the program had existed in previous years in some iteration, it wasn’t resurrected until this past year.
The idea was sparked by Alvey’s Leadership Vestavia Hills’ class of 2019. Each class is broken into groups that are given a topic of service. Group members then research the issue as it relates to the local community and come up with ways to solve the issue.
Alvey was on Team Hunger.
“One of the things that we learned through our research was that about 7.5% of kids in the Vestavia Hills City Schools system are on free and reduced lunch,” he said. “That told us that there was a significant need.”
It accounted for about 500 students in the school system at that time.
Those percentages were gathered in 2019. Throw in a pandemic amount of job loss and wage cuts and the problem could be significantly greater now.
In 2019, members of Alvey’s small group didn’t feel they were in a position to address the problem themselves; they just didn’t have the manpower.
“We felt like a bigger entity or institution needed to take it on,” he said.
“The seed was planted through my LVH class,” he said. So, it remained until a weekly staff meeting drew it to the surface.
It was apparent that COVID restrictions would ease by the event date this year and it was believed the festivities would be a great way to begin bringing the community back together.
“One of the things we have really been focusing on over the past few years is how we can be more present in the community,” he said. “How can we meet the needs of the members of our community?”
Both the staff and the church’s board of directors were on board not only with the idea for the program but the idea to use funds from the festival to support the new mission.
“God just seemed to say this is what you need to look into,” he said.
The program is being spearheaded by parish member Anna Colvin, who serves on the church’s outreach and evangelism team. The program works in partnership with Vestavia Hills Elementary East.
“East has been sort of our pilot program,” Alvey said. “If Ascension was a house, we would be zoned for East.”
In addition, Alvey knew the school’s vice principal, Cindy Echols, who served with him on Team Hunger.
The goal is to provide nutritious foods that are easy to prepare and that kids can take home for the weekend when they are not in school and able to access the cafeteria.
East counselors can identify which students are on subsidized or free meal plans, provide numbers to the church and discreetly dole out the meals.
“Because everyone qualified for free lunch this year through the federal relief program, (school counselors) couldn’t identify who was going to be eligible or would really be in need of this service,” Alvey said.
Next year looks to be a bit smoother and the program will resume its intended service. There are even plans to provide advertisements for the program at registration.
Those who support the program, whether businesses, individuals or other organizations, can sponsor a child. It takes just $288 to sponsor a child for a year, which provides food packs worth $8 each given over 36 Fridays of the school year.
Each meal pack includes two breakfast items, two lunch entrees, one serving of fruit, one serving of dairy, one to three other healthy snacks and one family meal item.
Alvey and his fellow church staff members and parish are hoping to see the program expand beyond both their walls and the walls of East.
“We’ve already had people contact us from other churches and other community leaders who want to be a part of this,” Alvey said.
“My real hope is that this is sort of a communitywide program that other churches and even business start to participate in.”
He envisions situations such as the church sponsoring one week of meals, then a local business taking on another week and so on.
“It’s a really cool way to bring the community together with a common goal, especially getting the churches together,” Alvey said. “I think everyone, or at least most people, can get behind the idea of feeding children in the community.”
To donate and stay updated, visit ascensionepiscopal.dioala.org.