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Manna from heaven? Children offer their version to needy

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis

Kamri Ball of First United Methodist Church displays a "manna bag."
Feb. 23, 2006

A UMNS Feature
By Lilla Marigza*

Some Texas “tweeners” have found a better way than loose change to help their city’s homeless.

In Austin, a young girl writes small cards that say, “Jesus loves you.” The cards will be the finishing touch on some very special gifts.

A first-floor classroom in Austin’s First United Methodist Church is abuzz with a busy assembly line. Young people are filling bags with nonperishable food items, such as beef jerky, juice and granola bars. The parcels are designed to give Austin’s homeless some immediate assistance.

The parcels are called “manna bags” for reasons not lost on the tweens assembling the care packages. “Whenever the people of Israel didn’t have any food, God sent manna to give them food, and it would be on the ground every day, so we help the homeless by giving them manna bags,” says 9-year-old Amanda Cripe.

Amanda and her friends are in the 9 to 13 age group. No longer small children but not quite ready to run with the teenagers, “tweens” are in a class of their own. At First United Methodist, Amanda and her tween youth service group are wise beyond their years. They’ve found a way to make sure their good intentions are carried through.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis

First Church children pack supply bags for distribution to Austin's needy.
“Some people, they buy cigarettes and stuff. And like food, you know they would use it for good reasons, like to get healthier and stronger and to quench their thirst and their hunger,” says 10-year-old Emily Jordan.

The tweens assemble 50 manna bags a month, and the parcels are sold for $5 each, which almost covers costs. The program is supplemented by donations. Church members and friends who buy the packs are encouraged to carry them in their cars.

At this gathering, Scott Stevens can be overheard explaining, “They put them in their cars and when they’re driving and they stop at a stoplight and they see a homeless guy with a sign, instead of giving them money, they can just hand the bag out.”

Each manna bag contains enough food for a full day, plus special extras the tweens know will be greatly appreciated. “We have socks in them and socks can keep them warm,” Amanda says.

Emily likes the reaction she gets with a manna bag. “When you give it to them they say ‘Thank you, I need this.’”

Tweens aren’t ready for summer work camps or other traditional programs for older teenagers, but First United Methodist youth leaders say they’re laying the foundation for future projects.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis

Scripture verses are placed in the special parcels.
Tween coordinator Lynn Reese mainly works with fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, but the tweens program starts with third-graders. “We think it’s the point at which the children begin to understand what service really is and what they’re doing and the benefits of what they’re doing.”

Youth Pastor Paula Stiernberg believes learning to look out for others is an important part of growing up. “They are very focused on self for the most part, and there’s that anxiety that comes with ‘How does my hair look?’” she says. “And the more that we can do to get them involved in service and thinking of others’ needs, the deeper they feel connected to, ‘What is church all about? What is this serving others?’”

These tweens bagging clean socks and fruit cups on this busy afternoon have seen homeless people with their signs begging for spare change. They know the manna bags are special because of the care and attention that were put into them.

“It’s a good feeling when you give one to someone because instead of giving them money, you give them something they can really use,” says 9-year-old Katie Wallingfore.

Enclosed with each bag is a handwritten “Jesus loves you” card with a hand-drawn smiley face. The manna bag brings a smile to someone who needs it most.

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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