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Church focuses aid on Abbett students

Food for holidays part of mission at elementary school

While reviewing student wish lists, one Abbett Elementary School teacher found that among the requests for toys and games, one of her students had asked Santa to bring food so her family won’t be hungry, Principal Robin Peterman said.

That student’s wish may have been granted thanks to members at Pine Hills Church who purchased enough food to help 180 families get through the next two weeks of winter break. Volunteers passed out three boxes of food items, a turkey and ham to families on Saturday.

For Jennifer Lee, the mother of a fifth-grader at Abbett, the extra food provided by Pine Hills means she may be able to use the money she saves to put presents under the tree for her two children.

“I feel totally grateful,” she said, fighting back tears. “It’s just so wonderful that there’re organizations out there that are concerned for families that are barely making it by.”

Lee said her family has been struggling since their house was damaged by a fire about a year ago.

“Things have been downhill for us since,” she said, revealing that she has also had a hard time keeping steady employment.

Abbett Elementary is in the heart of the city at 4325 Smith St. and most of its 320 students are non-English speaking and minorities. Nearly 100 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, and almost all eat at least two meals, breakfast and lunch, at school, said Peterman.

Steve Shaffer, executive pastor at Pine Hills Church, said there is usually a group of regular volunteers at the school, so for the holiday season, he searched for a bigger opportunity.

“I thought, ‘How can we assist homes that really have a need and get more involvement from members?’ Why not provide 10 to 14 days’ worth of food?” he said.

Lists were compiled and on one recent Sunday individuals and families from the church, armed with the lists, went shopping.

“We far exceeded any goal,” Shaffer said.

Peterman said the response was unbelievable, and when others at the grocery store learned about the cause, people started handing church members $20 bills. The donations provided the hams and turkeys for the families.

Church volunteers sorted and packed the food last week.

“It was crazy how much food was there,” Peterman said, describing tables and tables of canned goods, sacks of potatoes and boxed food items.

Packed boxes of food were passed out Saturday, and for about 80 families without vehicles, church volunteers drove their own trucks for home deliveries.

Church involvement

Peterman said the school has benefited greatly from the partnership with Pine Hills Church, made possible through Associated Church’s Rising Stars program, which provides tangible and educational support for schools including matching local churches with schools, according to the program’s website.

The food donation is just one way the church provides assistance, Peterman said.

Shaffer said it was just one part of what the church calls “the Abbett Initiative.”

The partnership began less than one year ago when Associated Churches asked Pine Hills to assist at the school with the Blessings in a Backpack program, which sends food home with students over the weekend, Shaffer said.

From there, the partnership has expanded with volunteers in the school on a regular basis, assisting with registration and classroom parties and events, buying school supplies and organizing a party for Teacher Appreciation Day. The church also raised money to pay membership fees for parents interested in participating in the Parent-Teacher Organization, provides after-school tutoring for struggling students and will run a three-day basketball camp for students in the spring.

“We’re assisting on all fronts,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer said the Abbett’s boundary area is among the poorest school-boundary areas in the state.

The Pettit-Rudisill neighborhood makes up the majority of the area.

He said it has helped the church to be so involved in one specific area, instead of spreading volunteer work and donations across several social service agencies or organizations.

Shaffer said the church has also seen a change scholastically with its tutoring program at the school.

In 2009, just 27 students, or 24 percent of the student population, passed both the English/language arts and math portions of the ISTEP+ standardized test. In 2011, that has increased to nearly 66 percent, according to data from the state Department of Education.

It’s unlikely that all the improvement could be attributed to the work of Pine Hills volunteers, but Peterman said the help is making a difference in the lives of Abbett families and students.

Shaffer remains humble about the work Pine Hills volunteers perform at the school, saying that it’s the work of any Christian.

“We’re blessed to be chosen to participate in helping that area,” he said. “We really want to go to those that are hurting, not as a hand out but as a hand up to lift up that part of our community.”

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