Monday, February 27, 2017

Doers and Talkers

Michelle Spanos with Honduran kids
Trish recently suggested that I speak to Michelle Spanos, a member of Edgewater Alliance Church in Edgewater, Florida about how the church pulled together its backpack drive. Since I’m the sort of person who will strike up a conversation with the person standing behind me in line at the checkout, I’m always eager to talk to someone new. I’ve got to tell you, I found my phone call with Michelle to be a bit convicting.

If you’re a regular Sowers4Pastors blog reader, you know that Edgewater Alliance Church is actively involved with the Manna 4 Lempira and sister church sponsorship programs. Now, it’s simple enough to ask a person sponsoring a particular child to fill a backpack with school supplies and goodies for that child. But, what about the children without a sponsor? Edgewater Alliance had a No Child Left Out policy and Michelle Spanos set out to do everything in her power to fill each and every backpack Allen had sent them.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Walt Disney once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Michelle somehow manages to be both a talker and a doer. She’s also someone who makes the most of any opportunity. So, when Michelle was diagnosed with cancer, she found herself spending an inordinate amount of time in doctors’ offices. That’s when a lightbulb went off in her head and she asked a couple of the offices if they would set up a donation spot to collect school supplies. They did. In her estimation, enough supplies were collected to fill about 35 backpacks. Brilliant!

Making the Most of Every Opportunity

Even though her back bedroom becomes a sort of school supply closet during the backpack drive season, Michelle knows it’s not a one woman show. The congregation of Edgewater Alliance filled many backpacks, plus Michelle had a youth group from another church get involved. The children’s ministry at EAC collected change until they had enough to fill six backpacks. (The children’s ministry will also be writing letters to the kids not yet sponsored, so everyone will get a letter!) In all, that little corner of Florida was responsible for filling 270 backpacks, which means that 270 children in Honduras have the necessary supplies for school!

Michelle is no stranger to Honduras. She went on her first visit in 2014. In 2015, she went again to help Rachel with MK Camp. Her husband went on a mission trip in 2016. And, just last month, Michelle was a part of the team from Edgewater Alliance that went to deliver backpacks and provide well-child checkups. She described what it was like to pass out the backpacks.

Better than Christmas Morning

Because they were also delivering new shoes to the children, the visiting team thought to put each child’s new shoes in his or her backpack. She said, “Kids went up to get their photo taken and we would take their shoes and put them in the backpacks. Just from that first little glimpse into a backpack, we got to see their faces light up. It was like Christmas 100 times over! We saw them walk away with their backpacks and come back later wearing a new hat or carrying a doll.”

Seeing the children receive the backpacks has provided a bit of inspiration for Michelle. She has new ideas of things to go in the backpacks. It was chilly when the team of there and the children were wearing short sleeves. She thinks items like sweatshirts might be a welcome addition.

Looking Ahead

It’s never too early to gear up for the next backpack drive and Michelle already has her mind on back-to-school sales. She said the last drive came together very quickly and they only caught the tail end of the sales. Even so, she said she and Edgewater Alliance’s college group bought out two different Walmarts’ supply of glue sticks. She loved pushing shopping carts full of notebooks and other supplies and knowing those supplies were going to help children received educations.

Michelle said, “I have a heart for them to hear about the Lord, but these children are also getting fed! And this is way we can help them to learn.”

She’s even made a little video entitled “Journey of a Backpack” and is eagerly anticipating seeing the photos of the next group from Edgewater Alliance to visit Honduras. She wants to fill the backpacks, and she also has the goal of encouraging people to get down there and see for themselves. Yep. She’s a doer and a talker!

Click here to view video

 - posted by Christi

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Super Bowl of Backpack Parties

You learn something new every day. Today, I learned that Life Community Church in Hilliard, Ohio is highly efficient. I was able to speak to LCC member, Petra Wallenmeyer, about how a highly efficient church turned a Super Bowl party into a backpack filling extravaganza!

Are You Ready for Some Backpacks?

Petra is quick to point out she didn’t head up this event, and that many people were actively involved. A small group at LCC came up with the idea of having a backpack filling event. Petra’s small group helped set up the supplies. The first announcement was made sometime around the beginning of December, which mainly told people to be thinking about it. The announcements kept coming, as did the specific details.

Even though the event was planned months after the back to school sales, the church had an inspired way to collect supplies. All of the small group leaders received an email with sign up information. The list was broken down into four main categories: Little Girls, Big Girls, Little Boys, Big Boys. Under each category, the needed supplies were listed, along with the quantities to be purchased. Each small group leader checked the box of what his group would do and let his group know what they would be providing. Petra’s group supplied boys’ socks!

Everyone  brought a dish or dessert to the church on Super Bowl Sunday. They were ready for some football, but they were also ready for some volunteerism!

Better Than Seeing Lady Gaga

Petra said, “During the first half of the game, people were talking. Guys were watching the game, of course. During halftime, we turned off the television and went into the other room where things were set up.”

Partygoers grabbed a backpack and got in line. The room was set up with tables which served as filling stations. A volunteer at each station put a different type of supply into each backpack. Quality control people checked through the completed backpacks to make sure everything was there.

Room for Expansion

What would Petra change? Not much! She thinks it worked out really well. It went so smoothly and there were so many participants that she didn’t even get through the line twice! She said she might want to see the stations spread out so that they will have more room. And, she would also like to see them expand. The group filled 100 backpacks with minimal effort.

“It was easy to buy when things were broken down into categories. I think we could go bigger very easily,” Petra stated. She continued, “For me, the biggest thing that stood out was how easy it was. One small group took care of most of the planning. Our congregation isn’t huge. Once the goal was set and the sign up email went out, the execution and getting the supplies was really simple. The whole process was simple! There wasn’t an overwhelming amount of effort because the whole church shared it it. With everybody pitching in, the work was done within about twenty minutes. Having a set time, date, and place, it was very easy to carry out.”

Now, that’s a halftime show worth repeating!

- posted by Christi

Monday, February 20, 2017

Green Light, Go!

Have you ever wondered how all of those backpacks and supplies get to Honduras? If you recall, I recently had the opportunity to talk to Jim Cofer, who heads up the donations and shipping container for Sowers4Pastors in Maryland. It’s a big job! It’s so big, in fact, that there was no way to include all of the info in one little blogpost. Previously, we talked about collections and where donations are stored and sorted. But, today, we get to see what happens when the team of volunteers is given the green light, telling them that shipping time has arrived and it's time to get things on the move.

The Art of Packing   

Jim says the actual process of packing the container is the most interesting part, as that involves expertly packing the trailer, to maximize the space and minimize loss. Again, a call goes out for volunteers. People from other churches and local charities show up to help pack the supplies into the trailer. If you’ve ever attempted to pack a U-Haul, you know there’s a special knack to packing on a large scale. The goal is to get as much as possible into the container, while also protecting the most valuable and fragile items.

I’m reminded of an episode of “I Love Lucy” when the Ricardos and the Mertzes were about to head off to Hollywood. Fortunately, Jim and the other volunteers are better at planning than Ricky, Lucy, Fred, and Ethel!

What Could Go Wrong?

Last year, the container showed up on a Saturday. The team got it packed--back to front, top to bottom. The following day, Allen was informed that the trucking company had sent the wrong container and the company was offering only two options: they would repack it in their warehouse in New Jersey, or they could send the fully packed container back, along with a new container, so that the volunteers could switch the contents into the correct one. Since things have to be packed in a proper order, Jim opted to devote another day to some heavy lifting. The correct container arrived on a frigid Thursday evening, when it was about 10 degrees outside. The team unpacked the wrong container and packed the correct one. The following day, before the truck could return to pick up the container, there was a blizzard and the meticulously packed-and-repacked shipping container sat there for a week, until the roads were open again.

This year’s adventure involved a forklift that wouldn’t work. The heavy machinery was needed to load spools of 1400 ft lengths of cable, which weigh 2500-3000 pounds each. No amount of lifting with your legs was going to get those spools safely loaded, so a call went out for a forklift mechanic. Then, as the truck carrying the container, which weighed in at a whopping 44,179 pounds, was moving down the road, the trailer broke its axle. Jim doesn’t let this stuff get to him, though. He’s thankful that, overall, they have been very blessed. No one has ever been injured and they’ve always been able to get the container sent off. While it was an unexpected delay, the shipping container is finally on its way to Honduras. It should arrive around February 15th. (Note from Trish: the container is in port in Honduras, making its way through customs now.)

The Superbowl of Shipping

I asked Jim if he’s ever visited the Sowers in Honduras. He chuckled and explained that Allen likes for people to visit because it helps them “catch the vision” for the work Sowers4Pastors does. He’s never been to Honduras, but he has most definitely caught the vision! He said he loves the Sowers ministry and Allen’s paradigm for ministry, pointing out that, if the Sowers had to return to the States, the ministry would continue because of how Allen has structured it.

If you think Jim and the other volunteers are basking in the afterglow of a job well done, think again. Jim said, “It’s like the Superbowl. As soon as it happens, you start planning for the next one!”

- posted by Christi

Monday, February 13, 2017

Getting Things from Here to There!

When my kids were little, I used to read them picture books about modes of transportation and how things get from there to here and here to there. When Allen and Trish asked me to speak to Jim Cofer, who collects donations and organizes shipping for Sowers4Pastors, I had no idea it would be like listening to a very advanced picture book about modes of transportation and how things get from there to here and here to there.

Fredericktowne Baptist Church Strikes Again

Jim and Denise Cofer
Jim and his wife Denise live in Maryland, and they manage this ministry in cooperation with Fredericktowne Baptist Church. If FBC sounds familiar then you must have been paying attention to this blog because the good people of Fredericktowne Baptist are key players in the ministries of Sowers4Pastors and it was the Sowers sending church.

A Private Answer to Public Storage

Mr. Cofer explained that when Allen first started getting a shipping container loaded, there was a barn-like place where the supplies were staged and packed. That worked, but eventually, the base of operation was moved and the Sowers needed a new location in the area around the Cofer’s stomping grounds. Throughout the year, when someone had a donation, Jim would volunteer to keep it at his house. Jim and Denise’s unfinished basement sort of became the Sowers answer to Public Storage. Over the past 7 or 8 years Jim’s role as a sort of shipping guru (my word, not Jim’s!) has grown, though that basement continues to be put to good use for storing donations and any personal online orders placed by the Sowers. Jim described it as staging focus central.

There’s an art to consolidating boxes, leaving no wasted space. Clothing donations serve as packing materials and are used to stuff every spare inch. If Trish orders something for the household from Amazon, she knows she can have the package delivered to the Cofer’s house, where it will be removed from its excessive packing materials and ridiculously large box and repacked with other supplies, which will eventually go onto the shipping container.

Not the Lone Shipping Guy

Mary and Gary Richard
Though this is a yearlong process, things rev up in September or October. During the fall, Fredericktowne Baptist uses its connections to a trucking company to procure a large trailer to store and organize items. Then the church puts out a call for Gifts for Gracias. The focus of donations can change from year to year. Some years, their primary drive has focused on collecting soccer balls. This year, they collected those infamous backpacks filled with school supplies and toiletries.  Jim is quick to point out that he is not The Lone Shipping Guy. Mary and Gary Richard are his co-chairs of the effort. Jim said, “It isn’t something I could do without them. We work well together.”

On Thursday evenings, while youth and adult choirs rehearse inside FBC, non songbird volunteers gather to help pack donations. Just about every Thursday evening from September-February you can find volunteers stuffing backpacks and organizing donations. Collections continue coming in for several months, until there’s a good amount of supplies in the trailer/staging area. When they have enough things, Jim, Mary, or Gary contact Allen and wait for him to give the green light to get the shipping container started.

I told you this was an advanced book on how things get from here to there. In the retelling of this story, I’ve already used up all of my allotted space and the shipping container hasn’t even been filled yet!

- posted by Christi

Taking a moment . . .

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Have U-Haul, Will Travel

We’ve talked about how to fill a backpack for the super cool Backpack Project. Now, it’s time to talk about how to get those filled backpacks into the hands of children in Western Honduras. It’s easy peasy--unless your name happens to be Allen or Trish Sowers, in which case it’s substantially more difficult!

Preliminary Itinerary

Allen and Trish are already planning their U.S. visit for the fall and they thought you might want to start planning, too. They sent me a list of the states they can easily pass through in order to pick up completed backpacks. Here’s their preliminary itinerary (which is awfully fun to say!):

  • Maryland
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Ohio
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • South Carolina

Not Set in Stone

But, even that whopper of a list is not set in stone. Allen assures me that if someone on the other side of the map organizes a backpack drive of monumental proportions, he and Trish will hit the road in a U-Haul. And, if one U-Haul isn’t enough, he’s fully prepared to sacrifice his traveling buddy, Trish, rent another truck, and have her drive a load of backpacks, too! So, if you live in Washington state, and your church really wants to fill a bazillion and one backpacks with school supplies and toiletries, email Sowers4Pastors (trish at and Allen will make sure you have at least two bazillion empty backpacks ready for filling. (Yes, I said two bazillion because Allen thinks big and he believes in your ability to think big, too!)

You may have filled shoeboxes for some other organization in the past. Don’t think of this as competition because it isn’t! There are many excellent causes in the world and the Backpack Project is one of them. Maybe you’re looking for a different good cause this year. Maybe you’re looking for an additional good cause this year. Maybe you just really, really like to buy school supplies!

A Few Perks
Whatever your reasons for wanting to participate, you need to know it comes with a few perks:

  • With the Backpack Project, you always know exactly where your filled backpacks are delivered.
    Sponsors from Florida, visiting their
    sponsor child in Jan 2017
    If you are able to travel to Honduras, whether with a team from your church or all by yourself, Allen, Trish, and Russell welcome you to go help with distribution. It doesn’t get more up close and personal than that.
  • My own person spiel is that it’s reassuring to work with an organization with absolute financial transparency. I have never encountered more budget conscious, fiscally responsible people than the Sowers. They are amazing stewards of the resources God has provided and, you can feel good about your decision to support their efforts.
  • An additional perk is that you might get a chance to see Trish driving a U-Haul across the country!

 - posted by Christi

Backpacks: Let's Get Those Kids to School!

True confession: Whenever Allen asks for a post on backpacks, I can’t get Dora the Explorer’s backpack song out of my head. Do you know the one of which I speak? It’s a catchy little ditty.

Backpack, backpack!
Backpack, backpack!

On the backpack loaded up with things and knickknacks, too
Anything that you might need I’ve got inside for you

Backpack, backpack!
Backpack, backpack!

[Note from Trish: if you're as culturally outdated as I am (an occupational hazard, for overseas missionaries) and you're not familiar with Dora's song, you can hear it in the very short video below. It really is awfully catchy!]

Dora’s backpack isn’t the only one loaded up with things people need. The backpacks filled for Sowers4Pastor’s Backpack Project are loaded up with school supplies and toiletries, which make a huge difference in the lives of children in Western Honduras. It can be the deciding factor on whether or not they get an education at all! Even though this project generally hits full swing in the fall, it’s never too early to start planning a backpack filling extravaganza! This can be particularly appealing for people who aren’t interested in sponsoring one child over the long haul, but would like to help out in another way. It’s also good for people who are sponsoring a child, and would like to fill an extra backpack (or several) for children who don’t yet have sponsors.

If your church, AWANA group, Scouting group, neighborhood, business, homeschool co-op, local school, etc., is looking for a great project, this may be just the thing for you! You don’t even have to come up with the backpacks because Allen will send you all you need. All you have to do is keep your eye out for some good sales and purchase the items to fill the backpacks.

Here’s a list of items to include in each backpack:
  • 8 spiral notebooks
  • 10 pencils
  • 2 large pink erasers
  • Pencil sharpener
  • 2 boxes of 24 crayons, or 2 packs of 12 colored pencils for older children
  • 4 toothbrushes
  • 1 large tube of toothpaste
  • 1 bar of soap with a washcloth
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • Pens (2 red, 2 blue, 6 black)
  • Ruler
  • Scissors
  • Glue or glue stick

Optional items include:
  • Soccer ball
  • Matchbox cars
  • Barbie, baby doll, or stuffed animal
  • Baseball cap
  • Comb
  • Hair accessories for girls

Really, it couldn’t be much simpler! And, if you pay attention to your local sales circulars, you’re sure to come across some awesome deals at back to school time. A savvy shopper can fill one backpack with all of the essentials for around $15. In Honduras, those same supplies have a value of about $100! That’s a lot of cash for parents with small incomes--particularly, if they need to purchase supplies for more than one child. As Allen said, “One of the things we’re seeing is, if you’re going to change a society and help bring them up out of an 1880’s lifestyle, a key way is to make sure the children get an education.” A simple way to improve their opportunity to receive an education is to ensure they have the necessary tools for learning!

You may have participated in the Gifts for Gracias shoebox drive, in the past. While you’re still more than welcome to fill and donate shoebox gifts, the backpacks have been such a big hit with the children and their families, as well as with donors, that the program has undergone an evolution. If you need a refresher about the specifics, you can find them here .

Are you motivated to help? The next post will tell you how the backpacks get from you, to Allen and Trish.

Backpack, backpack!
Backpack, backpack!

 - posted by Christi

Travel with the Backpacks: A story in pictures

It's a simple story. You have children living in poverty in Honduras. Their families struggle to feed them, let alone purchase the supplies needed to send them to school.

In contrast, you have individuals in the United States and other countries, who would love to help, if they only knew how they might do so.

In between those two groups, you have missionaries who can facilitate the transfer of loving assistance, from one to the other.

Come along for the ride . . . 

Churches, schools, clubs, etc, agree to partner with us. We send them empty backpacks, and
they present, to their members, this opportunity to serve the children in Honduras.

Members of these organizations in the U.S. collect new school supplies,
toiletries, and other small items, to fill the backpacks
Gradually the backpacks are filled,
and then they are boxed up for transport.
Boxes full of loaded backpacks are collected from multiple different locations. Eventually they are packed into shipping containers in Florida and Maryland, for the trip to Honduras.

The containers full of backpacks and supplies travel by sea to a port in Honduras. Once they've passed through Customs, we receive the boxes of backpacks, and proceed to distribute them to the children participating in our sponsorship program. The school year begins in February, and we push hard to have the needed items delivered to the children in time for the start of school.

Our truck, loaded up with backpacks to distribute
to the children in the Betania Program
Some little boy is about to be very happy!
Backpacks with name tags, awaiting their new owners.

FINALLY - here's the part you've been waiting for! Pictures of the children with their backpacks full of school supplies. The happy faces you see are children who know that they WILL have the materials they need to go to school this year!

But wait . . . there's more. Here are some photos of the children opening their backpacks, and digging into the goodies inside . . . 

From each of our feeding centers, children walk as much as several miles to their homes in the mountain villages. The impact is broad!

While we will continue to distribute the backpacks (the ones from MD are on the ocean NOW), we are already starting to think ahead to next year.  If you, your church, club, school, co-op, or any other group would like to be a part of this project, the following two blog posts will explain how you can get involved (Link and Link)! We would LOVE to partner with you in helping the children of Western Honduras get the education they need and deserve!

 - posted by Trish