Lessons from COVID-19: Ministry In Your Own Back Yard

Gratitude Day 486

Tues., July 14, 2020

Acts 1:8 – (Jesus said,) “Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

We’ve watched so much happen in the last four months; things we could have never anticipated or expected even five months ago. When these unforeseen events happen, it’s easy to look for someone else to “fix” these challenging situations; even the ones in our own back yard. Yet, sometimes, we’re the ones called to help with the “fixing.”  

Meet Jackie Goplin. Jackie is many things.

She’s a wife and a Mom to Brad and Julie. She’s a farmer, with her husband Eric and son Brad, who is the sixth generation to farm on their family dairy farm. She’s active in her local church, where she serves as music director and financial secretary. Along with her husband, she’s produced and directed 20 community musicals. They hope they can complete their 21st production that was canceled because of COVID-19. She’s a retired high school music teacher. In fact, my connection to Jackie goes back a few decades when she was my high school band director.  

It’s her most recent title that got my attention and caused me to reconnect with Jackie after many, many years. She’s one of those “fixers” that has bridged two important components of their local community, kids and dairy farmers, and sought to support both through this pandemic.

As soon as schools shut down during the pandemic, providing food to students and families that rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch became imperative for local communities. Across the United States, dairy producers were asked to dump their highly crafted raw milk because processing facilities did not have immediate demand for this perishable product. With schools and restaurants closed, dairy processing plants found themselves with millions of pounds of milk that were no longer needed until alternative ways of processing the milk could be established.

Jackie and her family farm near Osseo, WI, a very rural community. Jackie taught down the road at the Whitehall School District for 22 years. The Goplin’s attend Peace Lutheran Church of Pigeon Falls. With milk processing facilities in nearby towns, word quickly spread about the possibility of these processing facilities having to ask their patrons to dump milk.

Step in Jackie and a few of her friends. Beth Stay attends the same church as Jackie. Convicted that there must be something that could be done, Beth approached Pastor Mary Ann Bowman. Pastor Mary Ann quickly brought Jackie into the conversation because, well, she and her family are dairy farmers.

The duo were inspired by Rich Miller, a milk hauler from Ellsworth, WI, who personally contributed $5,000 to buy cheese curds and donate them to local food pantries. His donation was quickly doubled and allowed Ellsworth Creamery from having to ask dairy producers to dump milk.

Jackie and her friends modified their response and created a program called Curds for Kids which provides cheese curds to families in several school districts within Trempealeau and Clark counties. Curds for Kids includes cheese curds with the free food distribution that school districts coordinate for families within their districts. During the school year, six school districts included cheese curds in their food packages. Over the summer, four districts have continued to include cheese curds in their weekly distributions.

How the food is distributed to families varies depending on the school district. Some schools send buses to families each week. Other school districts partner with local food pantries. In other areas, families come to the school and pick-up their packages. Curds for Kids works with each school food service department to accommodate their system in supplying the cheese curd portion of the food boxes.

Curds for Kids was truly started on a wing and a prayer. Known as a very generous and community minded congregation, Peace Lutheran Church of Pigeon Falls provided the initial funds to kick-start the program. Jackie, Beth, and Pastor Mary Ann leveraged local TV stations, spread the word via social media and contacted Feed My People in Eau Claire, WI, which has non-profit status. Feed My People partnered with Curds for Kids from the beginning and is the financial arm of the organization. They handle collecting funds and paying expenses, which allows the volunteers to focus their time and attention on coordinating the program as well as raising funds.

Amazingly, Curds for Kids raised $20,000 in about ten days, which allowed the program to know it would be able to provide cheese curds through the end of the school year. Since April 15th, Curds for Kids has provided 15,000 1-lb. packages of cheese curds to students. Several company sponsors have made very generous contributions which has allowed the program to continue into the summer. One of Jackie’s former students had t-shirts made and is currently in the third round of selling them. Another former student held a concert and raised money. Through lots of personal contact to local businesses, Curds for Kids raised about $50,000 to support their curd distribution.

Much to the organizer’s surprise, they also received another generous $15,000 donation from Returning the Favor. Hosted and coordinated by Mike Rowe, who is best known for his television series, Dirty Jobs, Returning the Favor reached out to Jackie and Beth this spring. After several virtual meetings with producers, Returning the Favor surprised Jackie and Beth with their donation mid-June. Pastor Mary Ann helped coordinate the announcement, which included a cow boasting the financial contribution and lots of area folks driving by and celebrating. Returning the Favor’s donation cemented cheese curd donations for the rest of the summer.

Curds for Kids has brought these rural communities together in so many ways. It provides a healthy food source for kids as well as continues to support local dairy farmers; many which are family farms that have a huge financial imprint within these communities. It allows for continued dairy product promotion and education. The partnerships between the school districts, plants that produce the cheese curds and the volunteers demonstrates how folks working together CAN make a difference.

Spiritually, Curds for Kids provided the church and its congregants a way to help others through a pandemic. As volunteers work together for a good cause, they see cheese curds as a new way of evangelism and doing good works within their community.  

Personally, Jackie found herself idle at the beginning of the pandemic. Normally, she would have been working at school three days a week. Now, she uses those hours to help others and fill a gap that quickly came to light at the beginning of the pandemic.

What is the future for Curds for Kids? The organizers continue to figure this out as they go along. Currently, they are working with food service staff to see if cheese curds can be part of the regular food service offerings. Will they keep distributing 1-lb. packages of cheese curds for students to take home as well? It all depends on their financial backing. “We’ll keep handing out cheese curds until we run out of money,” Jackie says.

So often when we think of Jesus’ directive to share the gospel with others, we assume it’s someone else’s responsibility. Or that it requires going on a mission trip to a place far, far away. Jackie and her friends are a reminder that God calls everyone of us to serve in God’s kingdom right in our own backyard. Thank you for accepting this call, Jackie. We pray that the curd ministry continues for many months ahead.

To donate to Curds for Kids, please go to Feed My People and click on the Donate Now button.

To watch the Returning the Favor announcement, please click here. The Curds for Kids portion begins at 5:00.

For those willing to do ministry in their own back yard, I am grateful.

Blessings –

Dianne

Holy God – Thank you for the Spirit’s presence in Jackie, Beth, and Pastor Mary Ann their willingness to be the fixers within their community. May their story inspire others to do the same. Amen.

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