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A super day to help out the needy

Marian Vignali first learned about the "Souper Bowl of Caring" when she read a letter from a high school junior in a Dear Abby column touting the annual event and asking Abby to inform her readers about this youth-led effort to help the hungry.

"I read it and decided to go for it," said Vignali, St. John's Episcopal Church director of Christian education.

The premise of the program is simple: Stand outside the church doors as worshipers leave at the end of the service and ask each person for a $1 donation for the needy.

The charity program is easy to organize. After the event is publicized, teen volunteers collect the donations in large soup bowls on or around Super Bowl Sunday.

Call 1-800-358-7687 between noon and 9 p.m. ET on Super Bowl Sunday to report the total donations and deliver (or mail) the funds directly to the charity of your choice.

"I think it's good for kids to get involved in things like this," Vignali said.

When teens heard about the Souper Bowl, Vignali said some of them were really interested.

"Their parents do a wonderful job of making them aware of people who need help and prayers," she said. "Last year when the kids made place mats for people in nursing homes, they loved it. Everyone likes to think they are helping and kids don't often get a chance to get involved."

The idea for Souper Bowl Sunday began in 1988 with a pastoral prayer by the Rev. Brad Smith, then a seminary intern serving at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.

"Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat," Smith prayed.

Thinking of that one line of prayer, Smith got the idea to invite each parishioner to give $1 for those who are hurting and hungry. That idea lingered and in January 1990, when Smith completed his seminary studies and was hired by Spring Valley Presbyterian as an associate pastor, he discussed it with the senior high youth of the church.

Smith and the students contacted Columbia area churches, which led 22 congregations from seven denominations and several area businesses to join that first effort. That year they raised $5,700 for the poor.

The event went statewide in 1991 and 1992 and national the following year, when 885 congregations from about 30 states teamed up to raise $144,000.

In November of 2001, Smith became the first full-time executive director of the grass roots movement.

Last year, the Souper Bowl of Caring generated $3.5-million for charities around the country, with 12,000 participating congregations representing all 50 states and Canada. Since 1993, the program has raised more than $20-million.

Smith has always maintained that "although the event is a simple one, it represents a significant effort to transform Super Bowl Sunday into an occasion of "loving God and loving our neighbors.' "

The Rev. William Bozeman, pastor of St. John's, agrees. He saw the enormous good of the "Souper Bowl Sunday" program when he was pastor of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Beckley, W. Va.

"It was quite successful and there were a lot of football players who thought it was a good idea also," Bozeman said. "The kids, mostly from seventh grade through high school, were enthusiastic because anything that would help people in the community they were for it."

Bozeman would like to see the program continued every year.

"I think it's a good thing," Bozeman said. "You get so wrapped up in football you forget about other people."

But beyond the game that will be played on Sunday, Vignali believes the Souper Bowl of Caring is a wonderful way to fulfill Christ's commands.

"I'm a person who feels that Jesus tells us whatever we do for the least of those, we're doing for him and sometimes we don't want to think of people who are homeless or have an addiction or other problem," said the mother of two and grandmother of three. "Jesus really means for us to do something for people no matter who they are or how they got into that situation. We're doing it for him."

No stranger to charitable deeds, Vignali said she grew up in a giving family of 11 children.

"Mom was the kind of person that if someone came to the door and wanted something to eat, she would feed them, and if neighborhood children didn't get breakfast before going to school, she would feed them," Vignali said. "That's the kind of thing we were brought up with."

Money from St. John's Souper Bowl of Caring event will be donated to Jericho Road Ministries, an organization that operates a thrift shop and men's shelter, provides emergency night lodging for men and women and children and offers life skill classes and family assistance.

Youngsters, from kindergarteners to sixth-graders, will accompany Vignali when she delivers the proceeds of the Souper Bowl to Jericho Road Ministries. This will enable them to see first-hand what the ministry does for those in need.

"Lots of churches don't do much for outreach, but this is something real and the kids will remember this because they were involved with it," Vignali said.

Teenagers will stand at the church doors with their soup bowls tomorrow, Super Bowl Sunday, to collect the "souper bucks" for the needy after Sunday's 8 and 10:30 a.m. worship services.

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