CLEARWATER — Just past the entrance of Eisenhower Elementary, volunteers went from station to station and filled grocery bags with canned fruits, soups, meats and veggies.
The dismissal bell was about to ring and the school's neediest families were about to file through this makeshift food bank in search of something free to eat.
"We started with about 20 families," said Pat Marder, the director of ministries and missions at Calvary Baptist Church. "In December, we helped a hundred."
For years, Calvary members have gone on mission trips to Brazil, Thailand and the Ukraine. Last year, they realized they had a mission field a few blocks from their church's front door.
Eisenhower is a Title 1 school. Eighty-five percent of its 720 students receive a free or reduced price lunch. Some lack basics: notebooks, pencils, backpacks.
"There's just a lot of needs," Marder said. "They need resources, financial advice."
Since May, when the partnership between Calvary and Eisenhower started, church members have tried to fill that void.
They've adopted 28 of the school's 45 classrooms and handed teachers checks valued at $150 each. Some have given more.
"Two small groups raised $300 and they blessed that classroom teacher at Christmas with an extra Office Depot gift card," Marder said. "Organically, those things just keep happening."
Before Calvary came into the picture, C.J. Jones could count on one hand the number of adopted classrooms.
"Five," said Jones, the school's family and community involvement liaison. "It was extremely low."
Members have bought bookbags and filled them with crayons, folders, glue and other supplies. Calvary's giving extends beyond monetary donations.
They've planted gardens, installed walkways, striped the parking lot.
Students from the church's Calvary Christian High School have spent an hour a week reading to and tutoring Eisenhower students.
And whether school has been in or out of session, they've bought food every last Friday of the month.
"We don't qualify them," Marder said. "As long as they have a student at Eisenhower, we offer them groceries."
These were a few of the faces who came for food on Friday:
• Barbara Graham, who is raising a 9-year-old son with Asperger's syndrome, a neurobiological disorder. She said she lost her job in October 2008 and now has to make a choice between putting gas in the tank or food on the table.
• Rosa Garfias, an unemployed mother who said her husband has had trouble finding steady construction work.
• Frances White, a school cafeteria cook who said her own cupboard is bare.
"It's hard when you gotta pay the bills, rent, car insurance, car payment," said White, who is raising three grandchildren by herself. "I really appreciate this."
By 4 p.m., nearly two hours after the food bank opened, 106 people had been served. Calvary members had enough for 120.
Each person received a bag of groceries and a $15 Publix gift card.
The leftovers will be saved for next month.
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Since May, Eisenhower principal Sandy Downes estimates that Calvary has donated more than 700 volunteer hours and $20,000 in monetary and in-kind support. That's why she nominated the church for "Business Partner of the Year," an award administered through the Pinellas Education Foundation.
"They're always saying, 'Well, what else can we do?' " Downes said. "And whatever we mention, they follow through. They're more than willing to do just about anything we want."
And they've managed to do it at a time when churches across the country have reported a drop in giving.
"These are difficult times and we have noticed it in some fronts, but Calvary has been very blessed," said the Rev. William Rice, the church's senior pastor. "When people are challenged to give, they'll give. People want to get involved. People want to make a difference. And I think the people who come here are looking for their church to say, 'Here's a way to make this community better.' "
He said Calvary is just getting started at Eisenhower. In the future, the church hopes to host a fair to help direct families to social services and resources.
"We think that the biblical model of a church is not just when they gather on Sunday, but when they scatter on Monday, go out and make a difference," Rice said. "We don't want to drive by people three blocks away, come and learn about the love of Jesus and then drive back and not do something.”
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.