Santa has arrived: Christmas in July brings food and gifts to kids

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.

Urban agriculture center hosts 'Empty Bowls' fundraising event

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.

Empty Bowls Project inspires hunger awareness for third-graders

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."


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Gamers battle in Super Smash Bros tournament to help young adults with autism

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.

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The safety of churches on the minds of pastors and churchgoers

The safety of churches on the minds of pastors and churchgoers

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.

Day care program extended to children of visiting filmmakers, artists and musicians

Missouri United Methodist childcare

Article from Columbia Daily Tribune by Brittany Ruess

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.

Empty Bowls Project inspires hunger awareness for third-graders

COLUMBIA — Third-graders at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School stared at "World Hunger" shown on a Smart board in their classroom. The bronze sculpture by artist Billie Evans shows 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."

Those six-word stories, generated by all three of the third-grade classrooms at Lee, were the beginning of the Empty Bowls Project. The international project is promoted by the nonprofit Imagine/RENDER Group. Local artists or community members create and then donate clay bowls to a community meal, at which the bowls are then sold to raise money.

Each event is done at the community level, so money raised goes to a local organization working to ease hunger. In Columbia, that organization is the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. Adam Saunders, the center's development director, first visited Lee students on Feb. 7 to kick off the project.

"The students play an important role in the philanthropy of our community," Saunders said. "They can give something that they’ve put energy and thought and creativity into that can multiply through this event."

The event, a community meal on March 19, will be hosted at Missouri United Methodist Church. The bowls made by Lee students will be used to serve the meal and then sold to attendees.

Derby Ridge Elementary School students also produced clay bowls for the event, Saunders said, and Paxton Keeley Elementary School will donate the extra bowls left over from its participation last year.

The Columbia organization Access Arts also contributed the bowls, inviting church, student and community groups to participate, he said.

"We explain to the students that they’re going to be donating their bowl to this process," Saunders said. "People have the option to donate to Planting for the Pantry, and they can take a bowl home."

The center has run Planting for the Pantry for five years. Money raised for the program goes toward an urban farm that grows fresh foods to be donated to area food banks.

"If you are a family who shops at the food bank for your source of cooking, without the Planting for the Pantry program you would be more limited to canned vegetables," Gennie Pfannenstiel, an art integrated specialist at Lee, said. "This allows families to have a more nutritious diet with the fresh vegetables."

According to a 2014 study by Feeding Missouri, 125,600 unique clients were served by a Feeding America partner food bank on a weekly basis. Sixty-nine percent of those client households plan to receive food from a program with a partnered food bank on a regular basis.

Columbia has one Feeding America partner, The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

Art with a community purpose

Jagged lumps of clay rested in each mold in the art room, ready to be formed by Valerie Schoeneberg’s third-grade class at Lee. Students flocked toward the tables and got directly to work on forming their own clay bowl.

Students were equipped with their own six-word stories and imprinted them into the rim of the bowl with stamp letters. The message is meant to remind the future owner of the bowl about the importance of hunger awareness.

"My six-word story is, ‘The urban farm grows healthy vegetables,’" Miles Randolph, 9, said. "It’s all organic — it’s not fake. It’s not all that other unhealthy stuff. They just give it away for free, which is kind of nice."

Pfannenstiel emphasized to students the importance of inspiring the community with their hunger stories rather than focusing on the negative.

"Their six-word stories really pour their hearts out for people who are famished and people who are hungry," Pfannenstiel said. "We had to work through that. We know now that you feel so strongly about hunger, but what can you do to bring the light to that darkness? That was a really powerful learning lesson for them."

Third-grader Clarity Milarsky worked with Pfannenstiel to revise her story.

"Mine said, ‘We can help but hunger remains,’" Clarity said. "So then I thought, OK we can just switch it around. ‘Hunger remains, but we can help.’"

Making connections with the community they’re serving has been a crucial aspect of the Empty Bowls Project for Lee students. The third-graders traveled to CCUA’s urban farm to see firsthand how fresh foods are prepared for the food pantries.

"They’ve got their own little gardens," Miles said. "We’ve taken field trips there before. They’ve got lots of gardens, and they’re growing lots and lots and lots of stuff."


Experiences gained through visiting the community garden help the students associate their work on the clay bowls with a specific philanthropic cause.

"They’re very aware of where food comes from," Pfannenstiel said. "Since this project is a project that’s earning money for the community garden, which they’ve visited, it makes sense for them to realize that they’re helping give back to the garden, which then will donate food to the pantry. It just fits so nicely with their learning."

Pfannenstiel believes learning about hunger through visual art helps the students process the material and urges them to do something about the issue.

"Art makes a good tool for doing something in response to hunger," she said.

Instilling awareness at a young age

Last year, every student at Lee participated in the project. This year, the school decided to focus only on third-graders.

"They’re at the age where helping is huge for them, so they’re very excited about feeling like they’re doing something for our community," Seek said. "They get to see that they’re a huge part of this process. It’s good for them to see that this is what it’s like to help, and that it’s important to volunteer and to give right here in our own community."

Learning how to be a good citizen is something built directly into the social studies curriculum, Seek said. Connecting that learning to hunger fits in well with that curriculum and leaves an impression on students.

"I used to think when I was little, like, 'oh Columbia is so amazing, we’ve got everything,'" Miles said. "We’ve all got growing plants, we’ve all got good food, we’ve all got amazing healthy food, we’re all pretty healthy, we all get good exercise. But that’s not entirely true. Lots of us have healthy food and get lots of exercise, but there’s a small population that doesn’t have access to good food."

Ashritha Akkaladevi, 8, used her six-word story to emphasize the importance of service. Her story reads, "Serve and give organic food, serve."

"Maybe getting what you want isn't that fun when you see people on the road who need homes and food," Ashritha said. "Even if you get all this stuff, seeing people without much stuff to have and be with, it feels sad."

The Empty Bowls project has taught her that serving the community should always be a priority, especially where hunger is concerned.

"In front of our doorways and in the highway, we see people that are asking us for stuff like food and money," she said. "So I know that serve and give is what we are always going to do, because it’s our community."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

Columbia tries out New Year's Day Festival

Article from Columbia Daily Tribune by Alan Burdziak

Dozens of volunteers, performers and artists came together to entertain about 300 people Sunday for the first-ever New Year’s Day Festival in downtown Columbia.

Organizers decided in early 2016 to start a free event after the cancellation of Eve Fest, a New Year’s Eve festival that took place downtown for more than two decades, said Mary Hussmann, who helped put together the new festival. Pat Kelley, a member of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, asked her to help, Hussmann said, and the group began meeting in March. The main goal was to hold a free event that anyone could attend without worrying about paying for tickets, Hussmann said.

“We thought this would be a good event to have low-income, middle-income, high-income” people attend, Hussmann said. “It didn’t matter. Anybody could come.”

The group secured about $5,000 in funding from various city departments, and the Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St., donated space. Though some people had to decline invitations to help out or perform, organizers still got dozens of artists, musicians, historians and a local radio show to sign on for the event for free or at a discounted rate. Organizers will evaluate how it all went during the next couple of months, Hussmann said, and provide the city with a report on how the cash it provided was spent. After that, they will decide whether to do it again next year.

“It just has been kind of an adventure putting this together,” she said.

Gamal Castile, a former Columbia police officer, gave a presentation about ancient Greek weapons and warfare tactics. A few months ago, when he still was a part of the department’s community outreach unit, Kelley asked Castile to join the festival. He agreed, Kelley said, and though Castile left the department, Kelley still wanted him to perform, so Castile kept his word.

Castile, who said he has been interested in ancient history for his entire life, has collected authentic weapons and armor for years and gives demonstrations to dispel myths about Greek history.

“People see movies like ‘300,’ and they see this cartoonish, completely false image of what Greek warfare was at that time,” he said.

Using historical accounts, drawings and his authentic artifacts, Castile shows people how ancient warriors actually looked and how they used their weapons. He said he hopes to tour the country, giving demonstrations at colleges, universities and museums.

“I think it’s going to really spark an interest in people who otherwise think history is kind of dry or boring,” Castile said.

About a dozen performers from the Maplewood Barn Radio Theatre set up in one of the church’s rooms to live-record a 30-minute serial radio show from the 1950s.

The radio project, which began in 2011 as part of the Maplewood Barn Theatre, recently started live recordings in front of an audience. About 20 people gathered to hear the recording of a November 1954 episode of “Our Miss Brooks,” a CBS radio sitcom about a high school English teacher that ran from 1948 to 1957 and also was a TV show for a few years in the ’50s. The episode is slated to air at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 on KBIA.

Byron Scott, program announcer and a member of the theater’s board of directors, said Kelley, an old friend, had asked him whether the group would be interested in recording a show at the festival, to which he agreed a couple of months ago.

“Because it’s a community event,” Scott said of why the group agreed, “and because we felt for the kinds of shows we’re doing that a lot of people here would be part of our target audience.”

This article originally appeared in the online edition of the Tribune on Monday, January 2, at 10:35 a.m.