As the sound of a bell rang through the room on Thursday, children at the Missouri United Methodist Church eagerly looked up from their plates and coloring books.
It could only mean one thing: Santa Claus had arrived.
Santa and his array of gifts were just one attraction at the Voluntary Action Center’s 27th annual Christmas in July event. Around 300 parents and children left with good cheer and lots of toys.
It’s the center’s longest-running fundraiser, Executive Director Nick Foster said.
“People need help at all times of the year, not just the holiday season,” Foster said. “We provide an opportunity to give back to those who are struggling.”
While money was raised through donations and a raffle, the event was really an opportunity for low-income families to enjoy a meal and gifts, including books and toys.
The book “Pete the Cat” was a popular choice among all age groups. All of the toys, including the books, were donations, Foster said. Plastic bats were donated by the Solid Waste Utility.
“They were going to go to the landfill, so we said we’d take them,” said Foster. “We bought wiffle balls to go with them.”
In addition to toys, community members donated prizes for the raffle. Members of the public could purchase one ticket for $10 or 10 for $75. Winners will be announced next week, Foster said.
As the event drew to a close, children ran around, clutching toys in one hand and red-and-green decorative balloons in the other.
Ajahalee Robinson, 10, came to Christmas and July with her grandmother and cousins.
“I liked the toys, the food, seeing Santa,” Ajahalee said. “I liked everything!”
Sa’nya Johnson, 11, said she came to make new friends but stayed for the food.
“I like chicken,” Sa’nya said.
The menu included chicken, beans, salad and dessert. Services Coordinator Carissa Rounkles said the food was a hit.
“I asked one guy how his meal was, and he said ‘I loved it. I can go to bed happy tonight,’” Rounkles said.
While most children were there for the presents, giving the presents was the gift itself for one child. Grace Harris, 10, donned a red shirt and Santa Claus necklace for her volunteer shift. She said kids were eager to grab their presents.
“They’re all so cute,” Grace said. “They’re like, I want this one, I want this one!”
She and her mother, Katie Harris, are members of Missouri United Methodist Church. They decided to volunteer after reading about the event.
Grace, an avid reader, enjoyed seeing how happy the kids were after selecting a book.
“It’s such a good feeling,” Harris said.
A local urban farming organization held an "Empty Bowls" fundraising event on Sunday to help support local urban gardens and raise awareness about food insecurity in Columbia.
The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, which hosted the event at Missouri United Methodist Church, grows food for local food pantries in Columbia and educates people about growing their own food.
People who donated at the Empty Bowls event received a handmade bowl crafted by student artists from the Missouri University Clay Klub and Access Arts. Those who attended the event were able to join in a community meal to raise awareness for hunger.
The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture grew 17,000 pounds of produce in the past year, which it donated to local food pantries, said Adam Saunders, a volunteer for the organization.
Baby kale, spinach, lettuce plants were also handed out at Sunday's event.
"We envision a community transformed by good food for all," said Kristin Fraizer, one of the event's organizers.
Half of the donations from Sunday's Empty Bowls event will go to growing food for Columbia's food pantries. The other half will be split between education outreach and an endowment fund to support the group in the long term, said Fraizer.
Over 350 people attended the event according to a count by the organizers.
"I think it went really well. A lot of people got some beautiful bowls and ate some great soup," said Fraizer.
COLUMBIA — Third-graders at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School stared at "World Hunger" shown on a Smart board in their classroom. Thebronze sculpture by artist Billie Evansshows hands reaching for the little that remains in a tilted bowl.
"Let’s think of some words to go with this image," teacher Carissa Seek said.
Hands shot up. "Hunger," one student said.
"Desperate," said another.
At the end of the brainstorm, the students had formed their words into a single six-word story: "Skinny hand grasping, desperate for food."
"Being able to write a story with just six words can be so powerful," Seek said later. "The kids are trying really hard to pick those strong and powerful words."
When Patrick Brigman entered the Super Smash Bros. tournament, he knew the competition would be tough. But for him, the match was about more than the prize money — it was about supporting the cause.
EnCircle Technologies held a charity video game tournament on Saturday at the Missouri United Methodist Church to raise money for the nonprofit organization. Players from around the Midwest gatheredto compete in competitive and casual matches, with a prize pool of $3,000 for the winners.
In its third year, the annual tournament has attracted locals and gamers from outside Columbia, said Teri Walden, executive director of EnCircle Technologies. This year’s turnout was the biggest in its history, with more than 130 players.
ssociate Pastor Scott Westfall believes in being prepared for the worst.
Westfall, associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Centralia, is no stranger to church violence. In 2009, the pastor who officiated at a friend's wedding was murdered by a gunman at the First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois, during Sunday services.
Husband and wife duo Matt Smith and Emily Tracy-Smith are regular volunteers with the True/False Film Fest.
Matt Smith worked on pre-festival setup this year while Emily Tracy-Smith will operate the Picturehouse Theater. Their weekend is dedicated to performing their duties for the festival, and hopefully catching a film or two, but the couple's involvement might not have been feasible without the True/False child care services.
Emily Tracy-Smith dropped off her child, five-year-old Asa Smith, Thursday afternoon at the Missouri United Methodist Church, where True/False's day care, The Cradle, is located.
"I basically live here for the weekend," Emily Tracy-Smith said, referring to the church, where Picturehouse Theater also is housed. She is in her ninth year volunteering.
The annual film festival has offered child care services in the past, but expanded its initiative this year, offering child care to visiting filmmakers, artists and musicians through a partnership with Kickstarter. The partnership is designed to offset child care costs and allow people, female filmmakers in particular, to fully immerse themselves in the festival — by presenting their films, connecting with other filmmakers and celebrating documentaries.
Kickstarter "was looking for a unique way to convey their mission, which is to support innovation broadly and for filmmakers, specifically women," said Holly Smith-Berry, True/False's sponsorship director.
She said female filmmakers oftentimes create their first film and are starting a family by the time they are ready to release another. For female filmmakers, Smith-Berry said the child care services will allow them to participate in activities to help increase their success — engaging with the audience, answering questions and encouraging other work — while their children are cared for.
The Cradle will handle 16 to 18 children, but not all at once. Nancy Cooper, children's and family life leader with the church, said no more than 10 children will be cared for at once. The church is providing volunteers in addition to those from True/False, and each volunteer goes through a background check and training, and must provide two references to be considered.
The Atelier, a Columbia-based children's arts studio, is providing creative educational programming at the day care that coincides with the festival's theme, "Out of the Ether." Kara Hook, owner and co-director of The Atelier, set up a water bin filled with water beads for sensory stimulation. Volunteers also were creating cardboard buildings, or "Cardboard City," for children to paint and decorate. A dress-up station and photo booth also will be at the day care.
"I think it's great that we can come here and help out the filmmakers' kids and just get the kids involved in a different way than traditional babysitting would be," said Allison Moller, 17, who is volunteering at The Cradle. "They can play with the costumes and 'Cardboard City' and truly get involved and feel like they're part of True/False festival weekend even though they're not physically there with their parents."
Hook will lead an art class Saturday and her husband and co-director of The Atelier, Benjamin Hook, will host a music session Sunday.
In the spirit of True/False, the children also will work on an animated movie using 16 mm film. Hook said there's no premise for the film and the children will be allowed to organically create it.
"We're just going to let them go loose," she said.
Smith-Berry said True/False hopes to showcase the children's animated film through Facebook and other platforms.
Photographer Sarah Bell contributed to this report.