First Reformed Church provides Christmas aid for 200 in Landis

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 23, 2013

Volunteers lug a plastic bin full of food into Heather Koontz’s China Grove home. Boxes covered in bright wrapping paper and two pink and green bikes are placed next to a lit-up tree that sits in the corner. The presents are for Koontz’s two daughters, ages 6 and 9. The girls are out of the house because Koontz sent them up the road so the bikes, presents and food would be a surprise.
“They’re gonna be excited,” she said.
Koontz is one of nearly 200 families who are receiving aid this Christmas from the First Reformed Church in Landis. Every year, the church hosts fundraisers like an Andy Griffith-themed dinner and show to raise money for a huge holiday food drive. This year they raised over $20,000, and every penny goes towards buying food and gifts for as many needy families as possible.
Pastor David Franks said the project started in the early ’80s when a member realized a local family couldn’t afford food or presents for Christmas, and went to the pastor for advice. They put together a box of food and some toys for the family. Now, the food drive is a community-wide effort that makes sure needy families from Concord to Salisbury have enough to eat over the holidays.
Eric Lambert, head of the Men’s Brotherhood fellowship at First Reformed, is the project manager for the drive. When he started working with the food drive 20 years ago, the church was only able to help about ten families. But it’s grown, every year. Now, the church receives names from local schools, Main Street Missions — a local outreach in Landis — and church members.
Lambert hopes the church will branch out. He wants to partner with other churches and with local businesses to double the number of families they’ll be able to give a little Christmas cheer. One day, he hopes every needy household in the county will receive a box of food and a few presents for the kids.
But yesterday, Lambert was focused on the moment.
“It makes my Christmas. This is my Christmas.” Lambert said.
On the Saturday before Christmas, the men’s group from First Reformed assembles at the church. They briefly discuss a strategy, then grab plastic bins, bags of presents, a grocery list and directions to houses before piling into cars and driving to the store to do some shopping. The list includes essentials such as flour, vegetables, and bread, as well as fun things like cookie mix and practical items like laundry detergent. The goal is to provide a week’s worth of groceries to each family.
At the Food Lion on Main Street in China Grove, store manager Melissa Hughes said this is one of their biggest shopping days of the year. When Hughes came to the store three years ago, no one told her about the church’s food drive until the men showed up.
“It caught me by surprise,” she said.
But this year she’s prepared. Hughes said Lambert sent her the shopping list and the number of families the church hopes to provide for. Hughes’ crew got out the supplies, put them on pallets in the aisles, and set aside two registers just for the church.
Inside the store, all was chaos as men pushed two or three carts each, looking at grocery lists and filling their carts to overflowing. Carts crowded the aisles as the men placed items inside, some forming assembly lines to try and get in and out as fast as possible. The parking lot was full of trucks and cars packed with plastic bins that slowly filled up.
Other customers seemed surprised at the crowd, but not put out. Hughes said she’s seen other customers donate more money to the church, or buy Food Lion’s hunger boxes and donate those. This year, Food Lion gave 100 hunger boxes to the church to carry to families in addition to their already-full bins. The men then split up into small groups to drive the boxes to their destinations.
Saturday was the first time some of the volunteers had participated in the food drive. Brannon and Laura Bouknight have been attending First Reformed for five years, but this is the first time they’ve taken an active part in the event. Brannon and Laura signed up to buy presents for a family, and ended up with the Koontz family.
“The only thing these girls wanted were bikes,” Laura said, “and the family couldn’t afford them.”
But Laura, Brannon said, is a whiz with coupons and getting more for her dollar. She went online and managed to get the bikes, plus helmets and a few other gifts for the girls, without going over the budget she’d been given by the church. Having worked with the Salvation Army before, Laura is no stranger to being a good Samaritan.
“You do the charity work, you get the gift, you donate the money, but you never get to see the other side,” she said.
That’s one reason why Brannon volunteered to take the food and gifts to the Koontz family, so that he and Laura could see the entire thing, from start to finish. When the box was delivered and the bikes were placed under the tree, Brannon and the other men in his group stood on the porch and talked to Koontz about her life, her daughters, and asked if there was anything she’d like prayer for.
And that’s one of Franks favorite things about the food drive. Not just helping families, but seeing how it affects the members of his church and helps them to become more caring, community-minded individuals.
“It’s amazing how big the heart grows,” he said.