BURLEY, Idaho – Unless other Utah or Idaho churches are hiding their light under a bushel, Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana Church of Burley is the only Southern Baptist church in the two states that provides backpacks filled with school supplies for area students unprepared for the school year.
UISBC’s WMU Director Mary McFarling sent out an email in mid-July looking for churches involved in this ministry; only PIB Mexicana responded. They’ve been doing this ministry for three years, led by 30-year member Romana Nevarez.
However, First Southern Baptist Church in Washington, Utah, near St. George, for at least four years has supplied school supplies for the students in its own congregation, 25 last year and a similar number this year.
This ministry takes place “to support children and families in their education,” Pastor John Shirey told UI Connections. “Scripture tells us to share with one another.”
The backpacks ministry is personal to her, PIB Mexicana member Nevarez said.
“I remember when I was a child, and as a single mother I couldn’t afford to get everything for my kids,” Nevarez told UI Connections. “I know what it’s like to struggle to get the things kids need. Everything costs so much these days.”
It was caring for her grandchildren, buying them school supplies, that gave Nevarez the idea to start the backpack ministry.
With the assistance of PIB Mexican’s women’s ministry, led by pastor’s wife Teresa Gutierrez, 25 Burley students received backpacks the first year. Fifty students did the second year.
“This year we’re doing 60 because last year we missed some,” Nevarez said. “We were about 10 short.”
About 3,600 students attend Burley elementary, middle, junior and senior high schools. PIB Mexicana’s ministry is specifically for the first days of school, when students show up without even pencil, pen or paper.
Nevarez asks the women’s group each July if they want to do the backpacks ministry again, and when they say yes, she buys bulk packages of backpacks on Amazon. The women then search back-to-school sales and donate items to fill the backpacks with various school supplies.
“We try to match each backpack’s contents with age groups,” the ministry leader said. “The women’s group has kids in each of those ages, so they know what’s needed. The younger kids get wide-lined paper and glue sticks; the older kids get college-ruled paper and liquid glue.”
Other items that go in the backpacks: notebooks, filler paper, pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters, dry erase markers, rulers, protractor for older kids, and if enough money has been donated by other church members, sanitizing wipes and tracing paper.
“They get what they need for the first day,” Nevarez said. “The teacher sends home a list of what’s needed after that. For parents, every bit helps.”
PIB Mexicana’s women ministry participants stuff the backpacks the week before school starts – at a typical cost of about $25 each, plus the cost of the backpacks – and then take them to the schools for the teachers to distribute when they notice a need.
“We need to be able to help those in need,” Pastor Lucio Gutierrez told UI Connections. “This is a way we can share God’s love with others.”
For those considering a backpack ministry, NAMB Send Relief provides 60,000 backpacks each year on a first-come basis for churches with back-to-school, foster care, refugee or other ministries. A downloadable backpack ministry guide – https://www.sendrelief.org/projects/backpacks — has ideas, lists, and answers.
The website dollardays.com offers backpacks among more than 200,000 different, extra-low-cost items, which need to be purchased in case lots, such as toy race cars for 37 cents each, in 150-car case lots. Southern Baptists, though, get free shipping on orders of at least $399.
PIB Mexicana reaches out to its community on a regular basis, often championed by Nevarez. She and Leticia Hernandez now lead the church’s long-standing Operation Christmas Child shoebox ministry, which packs 100 shoeboxes each fall for youngsters internationally, many of whom have never received a Christmas gift.
Nevarez and Hernandez take small posters to Burley businesses and ask them for donations to cover the $10/box cost of shipping.
“We show them pictures of the children receiving the shoeboxes and their heart warms up and they’re willing to donate,” Nevarez said. “We have a great community. Everybody in Burley.”
Nevarez works part-time in the winter at the local Community Action Center, where her assignment is to talk with people about their electric bills. This puts her in contact with the needy in Burley, such as a family with five youngsters, one of whom had special needs.
After getting permission from her boss, Nevarez took the need to the church, where seven church families each chose one person in the struggling family and provided Christmas for them.
The previous year, Nevarez knew of three struggling families. The church provided Thanksgiving dinner for each of the three.
“Our church is really small, maybe 40 on Sundays including children,” Nevarez said. “We’re not wealthy but we make it okay. We do well.”
PIB Mexicana is a bilingual church that God has been blessing with new members. Four Spanish-speaking men have recently started attending the church both Sunday and Wednesday and a woman from Texas visited on a recent Sunday.
“When you bless others,” Pastor Gutierrez told UI Connections, “the Lord will pour blessings your way.”
By Karen L. Willoughby
A frequent contributor to UI Connections and Baptist Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org