Springfield | They faced some big competition. Pleasant Hill First Baptist Church’s summer food program was one of four finalists for the Governor’s Hometown Awards awarded annually at the Illinois State Fair. The church, with an average attendance up to 150, faced three other volunteer organizations from Chicagoland—Flossmoor, Joliet, and Plainfield.
In the Illinois Building at the fairgrounds on a warm Wednesday afternoon, the organizations gave their presentations. Then judges for the Serve Illinois Commission announced the church took the prize. They were awarded the Governor’s Cup for feeding lunch to food insecure children during the summer break.
Beginning when school lets out in June, volunteers serve hot lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays and include a cold sack lunch for the kids to take with them for the next day. The program, which began in 2018, ends when school starts again in mid-August.
Living in a county that local health officials describe as 50% food insecure, Pastor Don Hannel declared, “We’re a small church, in a small town, with a big need.”
Located in an isolated section of Pike County, the village of 996 residents is bordered by the Mississippi River and is about 90 miles west of Springfield. As Kathy Hart, church member and village clerk described, “The nearest McDonalds is 25 minutes away, and the nearest Super Walmart 45 minutes.”
Hannel, who has served the church for 18 years, said the congregation saw children going hungry in the summer. They knew they had to do something “and began to pray about filling that gap and meeting the need.”
Becky Brannan coordinates the ministry and was part of the group of seven representing the church at the state fair. She said they usually serve 70 hot meals a day, plus the sack lunches. “This year our numbers have doubled,” Brannan said. She estimated they served over 2,300 meals over the summer.
Church members and local volunteers do all the work at the church. FBC moved from its historic location into its new building with a commercial kitchen a few years ago. Funding is supplied by local businesses, private donations, and grants. Local vendors also provide discounts on food. Hannel said no government funding is involved. “Too many strings are attached with government aid. We wanted it to be open to everyone. It’s something God was calling us to do.”
Community members have expressed their thankfulness for the ministry, with parents and grandparents noting how it helps stretch their already tight grocery budgets. “It’s important for the community know the church cares,” said Hannel. “We want to make sure their physical needs are taken care of, as well as their spiritual needs.”
The Governor’s Hometown Awards recognizes projects that improved their community’s quality of life, “that had strong volunteer support, met a need, and made a definitive impact, thereby generating a positive outcome in the community and by extension, the state,” according to the award criteria. The program is administered by the Serve Illinois Commission, the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.
There were 37 nominees in the award competition. Last year’s winner was the O’Fallon Police Department for its Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Illinois Special Olympics.
While the judges deliberated the top four projects, finalists waited together outside the auditorium. One contestant from Plainfield told the Pleasant Hill delegation how moved he’d been by their presentation. He gave them $100 that his mother had given him recently for his birthday. “What a blessing!” Jennifer Bienemann said with tears in her eyes as the man walked away from the amazed group.
It was like Hannel said, “Anytime there has been a need God has provided.” With the award of the large silver cup, lots of other people know it too.