In South Florida an estimated 300,000 children go to bed hungry. When they arrive at school each day, they try to function while struggling with unique issues–poor health, emotional problems and failing academic performance.

Christ Fellowship Church in Miami, through The Backpack Program administered by Caring for Miami, is making a difference in the lives of these children, said Panos Kourtesis, executive director of Caring for Miami, a legal non-profit auxiliary of Christ Fellowship.

The Backpack Program, in its fourth year, addresses that concern by ensuring that needy students have nutritious food each weekend.

Over the past four years the program has quadrupled in size, feeding more than 1,200 needy children from 40 Miami-Dade public schools, all the way from North Miami to Florida City.

This year The Backpack Program was honored with the District-Wide Exemplary Dade Partner Award for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

At the beginning of the academic year, school counselors identify the students most in need, said Kourtesis, and those students receive a backpack. Each Friday, the backpack is filled with ziplock bags of food for the weekend, including two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and two snacks, along with handwritten notes of encouragement. Because most homeless students live in motels or cars, the food must be easy to prepare, easy to open and require no refrigeration. Students pick up their backpacks of food on Friday and return the empty backpacks on Monday, to be filled again for the next weekend.

The cost for a backpack of food for each child for the entire school year is about $150, and the effort is funded by Christ Fellowship, individual donations and community partnerships.

“We feed the children physically by feeding hungry stomachs with food. We feed the children emotionally and spiritually by feeding hungry hearts with handwritten notes of encouragement,” said Kourtesis.

The effort runs the 36 consecutive weeks of the school year and requires more than 50 volunteers weekly to deliver the food. Also, every month as many as 100 people come together at various packing events to package the food.

Also through the program, a Thanksgiving box of food is delivered to families. The Thanksgiving box distribution allows volunteers to connect personally with families, invite them to church and pray with them, sometimes resulting in professions of faith, said Kourtesis. A wrapped toy for Christmas is also given to each child who receives a backpack.

“I do this because I know it is what Jesus would want. The children who receive backpacks are constantly reminded that they are loved and not forgotten, that they will make it through whatever it is that they are going through,” said Kourtesis.

Such community focus is the responsibility of all churches, believes Al Fernandez, Florida Baptists’ regional catalyst for the Southeast Region.

“It’s our responsibility to discover the real needs within our respective communities and find creative and practical solutions – birthed out of a real desire to make physical, spiritual and emotional differences in the lives of people who desperately need Jesus.

“God has placed us as missionaries in our communities,” he said.

In cities like Miami, Fernandez said, unchurched people “are not just going to one day decide to come to Sunday School or worship on Sunday morning. God’s people must leave the building to invite people to feast at God’s Kingdom banquet table,” he said.

Christ Fellowship pastors “tell me all the time that a family came to church because they received a backpack,” said Kourtesis, and many members of families who receive boxes of food have made professions of faith.

Also, The Backpack Program is one way for “school administrators and teachers to witness the church in action. It’s a compelling message shared within a liberal school system, totally changing the negative perspectives that people have about the church,” said Fernandez.

Kourtesis noted the progression of interaction between program volunteers and school staff. At the beginning of the academic year, school staff may say, “The church people are here.” By mid-year, school staff are asking volunteers for prayer, and by the end of the school year, many school staff profess their Christian faith, he said.

“It is a blessing to see how the Lord uses the food to not only feed children, but also as a tool to connect with others along the way,” explained Kourtesis.

Feeding the 300,000 hungry children in South Florida is not a task that Christ Fellowship and Caring for Miami can do alone. Kourtesis’ dream is that networks of churches in Miami join together “to be stewards of the children in their own part of the city,” he said.

“I see Jesus in this program.”

by Margaret Colson, Florida Baptist Convention, June 2, 2017