The feeding of the multitude is one of the most recognizable and frequently recited of Jesus’s miracles recorded by the authors of the gospels of the New Testament. According to the Bible, Jesus sought solitude near Bethsaida, east of the Jordan River, after learning that John the Baptist had been killed. But after some 5,000 of his followers joined him at the location, he used five loaves of barley bread and two fish to feed the entire crowd.
The Children’s Center of the Cumberlands is using the miracle of the loaves and fishes — also known as the feeding of the 5,000 — as inspiration for its new program, which seeks to ensure that no Scott County child goes hungry during the summer months.
The concept is straight-forward: using donations from a large food bank and private donors, the Children’s Center wants to provide boxes of food to children from under-privileged families from the time school turns out for summer vacation until the new school year begins in August.
Kellie Walker, executive director of the Children’s Center, said inspiration for the program, which has been named Project 5,000, began after she heard her pastor — Black Oak Baptist Church’s Kyle Keeton — deliver a sermon on the miracle of the loaves and fishes one year ago.
“Basically, that message was centered around how the Lord fed 5,000 people with just minimal resources,” Walker said. “So I left there thinking we have a lot of needs in Scott County and somebody needs to do something about that.”
At the church’s vacation bible school a few weeks later, Walker noticed that a lot of kids in attendance were taking food home with them at the end of the day. As she put it, “A lot of these kids are attending VBS in the summer just to eat.”
Shortly after that, Keeton delivered another sermon centered around the feeding of the 5,000. This time, his message focused on how Jesus fed his followers spiritually as well as physically. Walker decided she could no longer ignore the message.
“I was on my way home from church that night and I thought, ‘I hear you loud and clear, Lord. This is something I’m going to try to do.’”
Fast-forward to this week, and the Children’s Center carried out its first distribution of food boxes. Some 102 children from 39 Scott County families received food, according to program coordinator Hayley Jeffers, an intern at the Children’s Center who was brought onboard to help organize Project 5,000 in its infancy.
Walker said the goal is to bridge a gap. During the school year, children who are going to bed hungry in Scott County receive food from Knoxville-based Second Harvest Food Bank, which discretely sends home backpacks of food with each child in its program every Friday. And, during the summer months, children who are involved in a variety of programs are fed through Scott Appalachian Industries’ summer food program, which provides food to the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau, some daycare centers and other areas.
It is the children who don’t attend those summer programs that Walker and her staff are striving to reach.
“We’ve always identified that there are kids in the area, especially during the summer months, that are hungry,” Walker said. “We see them at their appointments at the Children’s Center and they will stuff their pockets with snacks that are donated by our business partners, because they don’t have anything at home to eat.”
Walker said SAI’s program is able to reach many children during the summer months, when school is not in session. But, she said, “What about when (those children) go home? What about on the weekends?”
Through Project 5,000, the Children’s Center will box up enough food for each child in the participating family to eat for one week. Much of the food is being provided by Second Harvest, and children who are participating in the program were chosen based on their participation in the food bank’s school program.
“We put food in their boxes that we’re sending home that are specifically things the kids can make themselves, like mac-n-cheese,” Walker said. “We wanted things that kids could make for themselves so they can fend for themselves during the summer.”
While parents who can visit the Children’s Center to pick up the food boxes are asked to do so, the center’s staff delivers some food to families in outlying areas, where transportation is an issue.
Walker said the Children’s Center’s counselors are working to identify children who are being raised by grandparents on a fixed income who might have slipped through the cracks of the Second Harvest school program and can benefit from Project 5,000. But, she added, the program was intentionally started small with room for future growth.
“With this being the first year, we didn’t want to get too overwhelmed,” she said. “Hopefully this is something that can grow each year.”
True to her pastor’s second message, which focused on the spirituality aspect of the feeding of the multitude, Walker said she did not want Project 5,000 to be just about food.
“I wanted it to be more than that,” she said. So she and her staff has begun preparing lists of vacation bible schools being hosted by churches throughout Scott County, with dates and times and transportation details.
“Each parent, when we drop off the food, will get a list of the vacation bible schools that are being held throughout the summer,” she said. “Kids will have an opportunity to attend all of those.”
While the program has gotten off to a successful start, Walker said there is ample opportunity for the community to pitch in. The food that is received from Second Harvest consists entirely of non-perishable items. Those are good, she said, but it would be even better if Project 5,000 can include fresh items — such as milk and bread.
“A loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter would go a long way in a household, but those aren’t things we get because they’re considered perishable,” Walker said.
The community can help by donating food items, such as gallons of milk, snacks and other items. One church in Robbins has already contacted the Children’s Center about doing a food drive during its vacation bible school to collect food items for Project 5,000. All help will be gladly accepted, Walker said.
“It doesn’t have to be a financial contribution,” she said. “It can be a box of Capri sun, or juice, or milk, or bread, or even Little Debbie cakes. Just anything to help get their bellies full.”
Walker said most Scott Countians would be surprised to learn just how many children in the community are going hungry.
“This is just minimal,” she said of the 102 children currently being served by Project 5,000. “We didn’t include the kids who go to the Boys & Girls Club, because they’re already doing a breakfast program and feeding them over there. And we actually had some children who we identified who opted out, or who didn’t have a working phone number.”
The Children’s Center has long understood the hunger problem in Scott County. Walker said her staff always receives calls when school is out for Christmas break or extended periods of snowy weather. The callers are usually looking for food to help feed their children.
“They’re used to their kids eating at school and don’t budget for those breaks,” Walker said. “They can’t afford to feed their kids when they’re out of school.”
Jeffers, who is a student at Maryville College, said the opportunity to help organize Project 5,000 was one she was excited to be a part of.
“As a child, I benefited from programs like these,” she said. “As I pack the boxes, I think about how I felt as a kid, having to worry about these things, and about how no child should have to worry about these things. It makes me feel like I’m making a difference, fulfilling my duty as a Christian.”
This article is the June 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," which is presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.