If Faith Church in Bellefonte is guilty of anything, it could be a bit of false advertising.
On this Sunday afternoon, the church is holding its seventh annual “Blessing of the Backpacks” and free community picnic event for the start of the school year. But it won’t be exactly as described.
“We really don’t pray for the backpacks,” the Rev. Andy Morgan said. “We pray for the children who carry them, and their families.”
Still, that only scratches the surface.
From a simple picnic in Walker Township Park seven years ago, the event has grown into a festival for local families, offering free health screenings and haircuts as well as plenty of food and fun.
“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” Morgan said.
Scores of volunteers are set to kick off another year in grand fashion from 4 to 7 p.m. on the church grounds at 512 Hughes St. behind Bellefonte Area High School. The school district starts classes Tuesday.
All are welcome. Last year, about 300 children received drawstring packs stuffed with school supplies, then enjoyed the afternoon. Church organizers have prepared for a Sunday turnout of 350.
“It’s wonderful,” Morgan said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling to be able to see the community come together.”
Everything starts with the special blessing at 4:15 p.m., given not only for students but also for teachers, administrators and school staff members. These days, with school shootings sadly in the news more and more, it’s far from a rote formality.
“The level of concern has increased, so from our perspective the level of praying has increased,” Morgan said.
Afterward, the party truly can begin.
Top of the list, church members serve a picnic supper of hot dogs, baked beans, potato chips and ice cream, all bought with donations. Meanwhile, children can get their bangs and curls trimmed, a popular option started by hairdressers in the congregation. Long lines are common.
“We want every child to feel special,” Morgan said. “We want them to feel that they’re at their best when they go back to school.”
It’s not the only free service available.
Recognizing the soaring cost of health care for many families, the church reached out to professionals among its members and in the community. As a result, the event now includes dental, hearing, vision and speech screenings that alert families to problems or reassure that everything’s fine — either way saving them money.
Partnerships extend beyond health care specialists. Donations help buy supplies. Businesses give huge discounts for supplies. The Bellefonte Elks Lodge 1094 provides dictionaries for each child, and local Boy Scouts assist with games and attractions — such as a bounce house and face painting.
This year, the church struck a deal with the FaithCentre thrift store in Bellefonte. Children with vouchers from Sunday can come into the store Sept. 8-12 and select three outfits, plus a pair of shoes, for free.
Moreover, during the school year, children can choose another free clothing item, up to a $10 value, for every “A” in a core subject on their report cards.
“It’s a great way to encourage kids, hopefully, to keep doing their best,” Morgan said.
Rain or shine Sunday, the festival will take place. Everything moves inside the church in case of bad weather.
And no matter what, nobody goes home with an empty stomach or empty-handed.
Should the food run out, volunteers will dash over to a nearby supermarket. If there are more children than backpacks, vouchers will be handed out, redeemable for later.
In the event of the opposite, excess goods, the church has it covered. FaithCentre or local schools will receive any surplus, though the church had so much left over it came up with different solution. Six boxes of supplies were sent to a school outside Freetown, Sierre Leone, via a sister church in the country.
“Everyone seemed to be cared for here,” Morgan said. “We thought instead of hanging on to this for a year, let’s put it in the hands of people who can use it.”
He’s not surprised by the widening local support for the festival, the caring spirit that keeps drawing individuals, organizations and businesses.
“I believe people inherently want to serve other people, help others in need,” he said. “We want to be a community, know our neighbors and help our neighbors.”
He and his flock are ready — to teach. Before their first class begins, the children are going to learn an unforgettable lesson in the value of giving, in the power of love.
“When we saw an opportunity to provide for children, serve the community and have fun doing it, we took it,” said coordinator Pam Gudeman, the church’s ministries assistant. “As others see the same opportunity, they want to join in and the event continues to grow.”