By Jessica Brodie
CONWAY—Every Wednesday morning, the Family Life Center at First United Methodist Church becomes a sandwich-making assembly line.
On one end of the long line of folding tables, you’ve got the bread stackers. Next up are the mayonnaise-spreaders, followed by the bologna ladies and then the cheese-placers. Finally, at the very end, are the baggers, who carefully stuff the sandwiches inside small baggies and into the cardboard boxes, ready for delivery.
It’s a well-oiled machine, one they do week after week, every Wednesday morning at nine, all summer long. And it’s all for the hungry kids of Horry County, who rely on these sandwiches to ease their hunger pains while school is not in session.
“They have it down to a science,” says volunteer Lynn Hammond, smiling as she guides a sandwich into a plastic bag, then pops it into the box with the others. “I teach at a low-income school, and I know a lot of my kids benefit from this. There are a lot of kids who cry sometimes at school because of food insecurity. Breakfast and lunch at school could be the only meal they get, and I know this does help.
“You don’t know what one sandwich can do, and you don’t realize how much poverty there is.”
First members Nancy and Britt Stiltner started the sandwich ministry seven years ago after, on a whim, the couple partnered with the nonprofit group Help4Kids and packed about 125 sandwiches at Eastertime for people in need. The experiment went well, Britt said, “So I asked, ‘What’s the possibility of doing more?’”
Seven years later, they get about 17 volunteer packers each Wednesday morning, mostly older adults, though a few younger people have also joined in. They do 512 sandwiches at last count, though the numbers climb each week; hunger clearly knows no maximum. Barbara Mains of Help4Kids—whom Nancy Stiltner calls their “BFF” and inspiration—delivers the sandwiches directly to children all over the county.
“It started small and just grew bigger and bigger and bigger,” Nancy Stiltner said. “So many kids have absolutely nothing in this county.”
The Stiltners themselves go to Walmart and sometimes Costco every Tuesday to buy the sandwich makings: two big gallon jars of mayonnaise, 45 loaves of bread, 31 packets of bologna and five big boxes of bulk cheese. Even Nancy’s recovery from a recent surgery didn’t slow them down; after all, the children need food, and food they’ll get.
First’s pastor the Rev. Kyle Randle said he thinks the ministry is amazing, not just in the volume of food the volunteers are able to provide each week, but in the way it speaks to loving neighbors. And for the children, he said, it’s a welcome and sometimes critical help during what can be a difficult time, food-wise. During the school year, children often receive free or reduced breakfasts and lunches through the school, and on the weekends are also supported through various church backpack ministries, which provide easy-to-open, kid-friendly food they can bring home to eat over the weekend. But during the summer, Randle said, it can be a far different scenario.
“When children leave school, you often don’t think of the fact that they’re still hungry,” Randle said. “You don’t think a bologna and cheese sandwich makes a difference in people’s lives, but it does to the children who receive these sandwiches.”
Randle said the ministry is a way his congregation gets to actually “be the church” outside their walls.
It’s also a fun way for volunteers to spend time together while doing the Lord’s work. Nancy Stiltner said on Sundays it gets so busy that they don’t often have time to really sit and talk with each other. She has come to count on their Wednesday fellowship time.
Marie Newman has been volunteering for six of the seven years the program has been around; she took a year off to recuperate from a health issue.
“I feel it’s something I can do,” Newman said. “I can’t do a lot of things, but I can do this. And it’s fun! You joke around, see everybody every week, talk—it’s a friendly group.”
Lillian Sherry, who has been volunteering for three years and called it an “amazing project,” agreed.
“I think we’re all a little crazy, and we like to be with each other,” she said, laughing with a friend as they work.
But more important than the fellowship is the chance to make a real difference in these children’s lives. Joseph Mytko has been volunteering with the ministry for several years now and said something that not only gives him a way to stay occupied during his retirement, but to help children.
“Every sandwich I make helps somebody,” he said.
Hammond agreed. “In the summer, these kids are forgotten about. In Matthew, Jesus talks about the least of these. I think these kids really are the least of these, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. People say, ‘Don’t these people get food stamps?’ Well, yeah, but they still get left out.”
The sandwich ministry is one of many ways First tries to serve the people of its community. Members also collect food for Backpack Buddies, plus provide coats and blankets in the winter, chickens at Christmas, and more.
For more about the sandwich ministry or other First ministries, call the church at 843-488-4251.
By Jessica Brodie