MANATEE -- This school year, local churches are working to provide 150 backpacks, 200 dinner baskets and food for the weekends for struggling families in the Manatee County School District.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Bradenton started planning its year of service early, working with Project Heart before the start of this school year to provide 150 Manatee County students with backpacks filled with school supplies.
Project Heart, a school district program that assists students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, recently worked with parents on how to encourage their children in education and ensure they complete their homework. The church offered face painting, snacks and free books for the students in attendance.
Bobbie Blackburn, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran, said backpacks were handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, and the money to buy the backpacks was donated by church members.
Blackburn said she is looking forward to the church's food program, which provides dinner baskets for families for Thanksgiving.
"We work annually to proved 200 baskets for families of school children in need," Blackburn said.
Trinity Lutheran partners with Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Redeemer Lutheran Church and Living Lord Lutheran Church to assemble the baskets.
Blackburn said her church partners with the PACE Center for Girls, an advocacy group for young
women providing education and counseling.
However, Blackburn said her church does not work with PACE exclusively.
Blackburn said Trinity Lutheran is looking to partner with more schools, including nearby Prine Elementary.
"On the school district's website, there is a link about business partners and entities joining with schools, so hopefully we can make more connections," Blackburn said.
School board member Barbara Harvey said the district's Partners in Education program is a link for everyone in the community to be involved with educating children and working with schools.
Harvey said that the program targets at-risk children who need academic support and teaches reading and teen pregnancy prevention. The Partners in Education program is also a source for businesses to give donations of school supplies and books.
"Anybody who would like to help in the process of educating children certainly can," Harvey said. "For churches and other social groups to be involved with the education of our population is a wonderful thing. Only by working together can we make sure every child is educated."
In addition to tutoring and the Thanksgiving meal program, Blackburn said she would also be interested in volunteering for maintenance tasks at schools, such as painting halls.
Steve Price, co-pastor of Harvest United Methodist Church, said he sees the church's partnership with Samoset Elementary as an ongoing commitment.
"We have about 100 people currently involved in the partnership one way or another," Price said. "This includes volunteers on a weekly basis providing assistance in reading and tutoring."
Reading assistance is vital for Samoset, one of the five schools in Manatee County on the state's list of the 100 lowest performing elementary schools for reading.
Harvest United Methodist also launched a semi-annual scholastic book fair for Samoset Elementary. Through donations from church members, every child is given an allowance from Harvest to buy books at the fair.
"It is certainly a real opportunity to provide from our funds and human resources to assist schools, as well as provide role models and mentors," Price said.
Price would not comment on the current state of the school district, but he said he hopes his church can continue to encourage others to get involved with a school near them.
"If more of us embraced the population needing help and support, we would have a much more vibrant community," Harvey said. "That means take a child or group of children under your wing and help them. With more time doing that less time complaining, this community will thrive."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.