By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
GALLATIN — It’s not easy to turn a church building into a shopping mall. But for one day each year, the members of First Baptist Church, Gallatin, make it happen.
Roughly five years ago, the church established the “Starting Strong” program — a ministry that provides brand-new school clothes and accessories to children who come from tough economic situations.
Throughout the year, the members of the “Starting Strong” committee watch the sales papers at local retail stores, and continuously purchase items (shirts, jeans, shoes, hoodies, etc.) that will be given away. Then, on a designated Saturday just before school begins, financially-challenged families are invited to come to “shop” at the church.
At this year’s event, the church was able to provide items for 284 children from the area.
“We use the Starting Strong program as a means to bless these kids and love on them in Jesus’ name,” said Travis Fleming, pastor at FBC. “We want to help them get off to a good start to the school year and not have to go back with their peers — most of whom have new clothes and new shoes — without having anything new of their own.”
The ministry reached about 75 children the first year, and has steadily grown each year. Roughly 200 church members and volunteers help with the project, transforming the church into a temporary outlet mall.
“We have entire classrooms filled with boys’ and girls’ shoes,” said Fleming, “and another room filled with shirts and another room filled with jeans. Our education building is just full of a ton of clothing items. It’s really great.”
The Starting Strong “team” works closely with the guidance counselors from the local schools to gather the names of children and families in need.
Jerry Blunkall, a deacon at FBC, is credited with creating the concept behind the ministry, although he is quick to deflect any praise.
“I was driving down the road one day, and the Lord put this idea in my head,” he said. “I couldn’t have thought of this on my own.”
Soon, the ball started rolling.
“I went and talked to Greg Jackson (the church’s executive pastor at the time) and it kind of started from there,” Blunkall said. “We formed a committee (with Blunkall serving as chair) and got things going.”
In addition to clothing, the church is also helping the families with their spiritual needs. Counseling areas and prayer rooms are available after they’ve completed their shopping. “We want to do more than just put clothes on their back,” Fleming said.
Members of the church staff, including Fleming, serve as counselors, making themselves available to the families. “We asked questions like: Is there any way we can pray for you? Do you have a home church? And most importantly, do you know Christ?” said Fleming.
Elementary-aged children are given gospel materials to take with them, and older students — in middle and high school — are given a 30-day devotional.
Lunch is also provided for the participating families. Some years, the church has cooked hot dogs and hamburgers. This year, Hunt Brothers Pizza sent over two of its “trucks” and cooked pizzas in the church parking lot.
Originally, the idea of the ministry was to provide school supplies for the children. But at one of the early meetings of the Starting Strong committee — which includes a number of retired school teachers and administrators — it was determined that clothing, not school supplies, was the greatest need.
So, Blunkall began thinking about the possibilities.
“I told the members of the committee, ‘We need three things: We need money, we need to be able to find out which children we can help, and then we need clothes,’” said Blunkall.
Collecting money to fund the project — which, of course, is normally one of the biggest obstacles for any program — turned out to be an easy assignment.
“I suggested that we go to the Sunday School classes and just ask for it,” said Blunkall with a reflective laugh. “So, sure enough, we went to the Sunday School classes and told them what we’re going to do and that we needed their help providing money. In just a couple of months, they provided us about $20,000.”
That same spirit of generosity has been on display throughout the brief history of Starting Strong. Outside organizations, such as Soles4Souls, have become involved with the ministry, and have helped increase the inventory.
“We basically don’t have to ask for money anymore. It just comes in,” Blunkall said. “I think people understand the need for (this ministry), and they want to be a part of it.”