MANATEE -- When Lorri Vogel returned to Bradenton three years ago from a stint as a missionary, she challenged her church to care for the needy.
Vogel began to develop outreach projects at Bradenton's Church of the Cross, 5051 26th St. W. because Bradenton has changed, "as has our nation."
"Because of the economy, many people are struggling in a way we weren't aware of 25 years ago," Vogel said. "You always have those who are needy in our community, but it seemed like everywhere we turned, somebody needed help."
She spearheaded many different types of projects through the church, from gathering backpacks and uniforms for elementary students to a popular food pantry for the poor.
"In a three-year span, we went from little or nothing to being recognized by the Chamber of Commerce," said senior Pastor Stan Pavkovich.
As part of one church program, about 500 spare uniforms were delivered to Daughtrey Elementary, he said.
At another elementary school, Bayshore Elementary, the church supplies 750 children with backpacks and supplies each year before school starts.
"We endeavor to supply every kid a backpack," Vogel said.
"It's really become part of the DNA of our church, as
far as making a difference," Pavkovich said. "The DNA is to be very generous. We partnered with various businesses, and are connecting with the community."
The church program at another school, Bayshore Elementary, evolved from a partnership with the Elks Club. "Feeding Empty Tummies" ensures schoolchildren have enough to eat on weekends, said Vogel.
"Every Friday the Elks Feeding Empty Tummies fills backpacks full of food, and kids just take them home for the weekend," Pavkovich said.
The church work on behalf of others was recognized by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said Jacki Dezelski, chamber vice president, east county and community development.
The church was named Civic Partner of the Year Award in 2013 for its efforts during a Business Education Partnership Awards ceremony, Dezelski said.
"Through their dedicated outreach, the volunteers of this organization have opened their arms and embraced the Bayshore Elementary community, enabling students to succeed," the chamber said.
Another project ensued when the principal at Daughtrey Elementary told church members her pupils could only afford a single set of uniforms each. If they spilled something on their clothing, they had nothing else to wear.
Vogel raised money mostly from church members and Cedar Hammock Fire and Rescue to purchase 500 spare uniforms, which are passed out as needed.
The church's most recent project is recruiting Daughtrey Elementary mentors to match with youngsters who have fallen behind in reading, said Pavkovich. The tutoring will help them to be successful and break the cycle of poverty, he said.
The church food pantry for the needy provides groceries for more than 200 people a week.
"It has really gone wild lately," said Pavkovich.
The pastor recalled operating food pantries many years ago, where most recipients were drug addicts and homeless people.
"Today, what I'm finding is people coming in from all walks of life," he said.
Vogel also has noticed a difference in the type of people benefitting from outreach efforts, such as the food pantry.
"We started with 30 people, and the average person, I would have to say across the board, are single moms to many, many seniors who are on some type of Social Security, she said. "But most have significant health issues that just eat up so much of their monthly allotment."
Asked what else his church does well, the pastor cited its "recovery ministry" designed to help with life problems such as divorce or addiction, an active youth and childrens' program and a professional counselor on staff.
"The type of ministry she is providing is something people would have a hard time affording," he said of the professional counselor.
Pavkovich has been a constant at the church, since he and his wife, Karen, have been attending there since 1976, with time out in 1980-83 for Bible college.
In 1984, Pavkovich was hired as youth pastor, then promoted to associate pastor, and finally to senior pastor.
"We strive to be the friendliest church in town, and have really tried to instill that when people come in," said Pavkovich. "We want them to feel warm and welcome."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.