Connie Sikkema wants children to have a fresh start in Hillsborough County schools this year.
Specifically, the children of the migrant workers, who live in overcrowded housing with parents who cannot speak for them because of language barriers. Without help, these children might go off to their first day of school reflecting the abject poverty in which they live.
But Sikkema, 65, won't have it that way.
For 20 years the Country Place woman has overseen Messiah Lutheran Church's Migrant Ministries. For the past 15, she has run the Back to School Outreach.
Immediately after Easter, Sikkema starts her drive, collecting new shoes, socks, underwear, backpacks, school supplies and Bibles, which she then distributes to every migrant child in need. She wants each child to get a new haircut, too.
"The only way to break the cycle of poverty is by giving the children education and self-esteem," Sikkema says. "You should see the pride and the excitement on their faces when they walk out with their new supplies and their new haircuts."
Sikkema learned about the migrants' plight more than two decades ago when she "adopted" a family for Christmas. Delivering gifts from herself and a friend, she found herself staring at 17 trailers full of children, many running over to ask, "No Christmas for us?"
Completely unprepared, Sikkema promised she would return. She solicited help from the members of Messiah Lutheran of Carrollwood, and kept her promise, returning days later with gifts for the other families.
This past year, the ministry took 3,000 Christmas gifts to 1,500 migrant children, said Sikkema, who has earned the nickname "Wimauma Mama."
Despite recent surgery to her hip and knee, Sikkema continues to drive a 16-foot moving van to Messiah's Mission House of Hope in Plant City. A step-stool and a walker help her get around.
"What makes Connie special is the fact that she is filled with the Holy Spirit," said Pastor Scott Burmeister of Messiah Lutheran.
Sikkema finds herself invited to two or three graduations every spring. "I feel like a grandmother to these children," she says.
Contact reporter Sheryl Kay with any religion news at email@example.com or call (813) 230-8788.
If you go
Back to School Outreach
The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Planteen Recreational Center in Plant City. Those who need help should register by calling Messiah's Mission House of Hope at 960-0170. To make a donation, call that number or Messiah Lutheran Church at 961-2182.