Ed: What is the award, and who has won the award in the past?
Panos: On April 6, the Caring for Miami Backpack Program was honored with the District-Wide Exemplary Dade Partner Award for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Since its inception in 1978, Dade Partners has grown to more than 4,500 entities that have formed thousands of partnerships between their organizations and our schools. Together, these partners continue to share their expertise and provide our schools a multitude of resources.
A panel of 19 local community leaders served as judges in reviewing the programs in consideration of the award. Previous winners include the City of Hialeah, Baptist Health South Florida, Bank of America, The Children's Trust, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Florida Power and Light.
Ed: Tell me about the program they are awarding. What is Christ Fellowship doing that gets the award?
Panos: Every weekend, volunteers from Caring for Miami and Christ Fellowship feed more than 1,200 disadvantaged children from 40 Miami-Dade public schools, stretching 53 miles from North Miami down to Florida City. The Backpack Program runs on the energy of volunteers and is funded by Christ Fellowship, individual donations, and other community partnerships. Large food packing events are hosted at least once a month to package the food bags for the children. A team of over 40 dedicated volunteers hand-deliver these food packages to partner schools for the 36 weeks that they are in session.
Ed: Why should churches serve their cities like you do? Why not just preach the gospel?
Panos: The Backpack Program provides a way to reach children and families who might otherwise feel forgotten or unimportant. We use food as a tool to let them know they are valuable and loved: We love them, but Jesus loves them even more.
Jesus showed us how to feed the material and spiritual needs of others. We physically feed hungry stomachs with food. We spiritually feed hungry hearts with love and hope with handwritten notes of encouragement included every week in each backpack.
Our volunteers share the love of Christ weekly through their actions. The food is always offered with no strings attached. This free service always softens hearts and stirs up curiosity from school staff, parents, and new volunteers. These Christ-like actions always lead to doors opening at schools to have life-changing conversations, prayers, and salvations.
Ed: How have you led the church to be involved in these things?
Panos: The Backpack Program has quadrupled in size over the past four years, from 300 children served to more than 1,200. Our church volunteers want to make a bigger and bigger impact in our community. We know we are having an impact because we would definitely be missed if the program were ever to go away. This award is a major achievement and blessing because it shows that the community considers itself better off because of the existence of the local church and its mobilization as the hands and feet of Christ.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.