Lorelai’s mother, age 20, seems stressed as she balances a box of diapers and toys on her knee. Lorelai’s mother is calling for her to get in the car, where her 10-month-old baby brother and dad are waiting.
But Lorelai doesn’t want to get in the car. She wants to play with the toys that have been donated for kids at Christmas.
It’s another second Saturday of the month at Cedar Bluff United Methodist Church, where “In His Hand” infant mission has been taking care of basic needs for children ages newborn to six since 2015.
“The story I’ve heard, especially from single mothers, is that this [ministry] helps their budgets so much,” says the Rev. Greg Cox, pastor at Dennison Chapel United Methodist Church. “God called us to be part of this outreach. It’s fulfilling because you immediately see the impact.”
Several churches in the area participate in the ministry, helping as many as 70 families within a month. The families come from four counties: Tazewell, Russell, Washington, and Buchanan.
“It really has grown by leaps and bounds,” says the Rev. Annette Warren, pastor at Cedar Bluff United Methodist Church and Clearview United Methodist Church. “There were people waiting for diapers when we got here this morning.”
The constant need for disposable diapers and wipes is what inspired Amanda Queen to approach her pastor about beginning the ministry five years ago.
“You can’t buy diapers or wipes on WIC,” Queen says, referring to the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Through federal grants made to states, WIC provides food to low-income women, infants, and children up to age five.
In her job as a high-school teacher, Queen said she encounters many low-income teenage mothers. When she tried to help a pregnant 16-year-old who “had nothing,” she recognized a ministry niche to help struggling parents. Queen ended up birthing a new ministry.
“This is how God weaved this together,” says Queen, describing how the ministry expanded from providing a basic box with diapers, wipes, lotion, shampoo, and rash cream to a bigger enterprise that took over several church rooms.
Once the ministry kicked off, workers at Cedar Bluff United Methodist realized struggling families could use even more than diapers and wipes. Nearby churches and the Elk Garden School Community Ministry jumped in to help, providing not only formula and car seats, but also clothing and toys.
Queen also applies for numerous grants, receiving them from businesses, hospitals, and church groups, including the Holston Foundation and Holston Conference Change for Children fund. She received a grant from Huggies diapers that was so large, she had to get the high-school football team to unload it: 2,500 pounds of baby wipes.
“They were so heavy, I was afraid they would fall through the floor,” Queen said of the baby wipes. To be safe, she had the football players deposit them throughout several rooms in the church. The wipes supplied all the babies served by the mission for two years.
As the ministry expanded, Warren started emptying out church rooms that were doing nothing but storing old stuff. “We had 20 to 30 years of stuff back there. We just started giving it out,” she said. Now there is a designated “toy room” as well as rooms for diapers and children’s clothing, stored according to size.
The ministry does more than just help parents, says Robin Brown, a volunteer and member at Cedar Bluff United Methodist.
“About two-thirds of the people coming through here are grandparents raising their grandchildren,” said Brown. Among the clients who came to Cedar Bluff for help on Dec. 12 was a woman who had just been awarded custody of three grandchildren: ages 18 months, 10 months, and 2 years.
“I have no money to spend on these babies,” the grandmother told Brown, explaining that all her income had to go for food.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed the ministry, just has the pandemic has changed many ministries. A quarterly community meal that was much loved by participating families had to be suspended. During virus case surges, volunteers serve families one at a time as they wait in the outdoor pavilion.
Volunteers also find themselves stepping in to help when the virus interferes with other aid. On Dec. 12, Queen was loading boxes of clothing and toys to help a community agency provide 163 Angel Tree gifts in a year when many former donors couldn’t commit to helping.
Otherwise, the pandemic isn’t making it any harder for a single working mom on a limited income, according to one parent who came for help.
“It’s already hard. These are just hard times,” said Tracey, age 30. “By the time you pay the rent and electricity, there’s nothing left. Covid hasn’t changed anything about that.”
In her hand was a pink, furry, warm coat that she was taking home to her daughter.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.