St. Mary’s Students Keep Their Promises

The kids at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, keep their promises. Just as they had vowed months earlier, on a recent winter evening the fifth-grade Sunday school class transformed their parish hall into “A Night in Italy” to benefit Episcopal Relief & Development.

Last year, as fourth graders, the students held a cookie sale that brought in hundreds of dollars for NetsforLife®, Episcopal Relief & Development’s program partnership to fight malaria. The kids were so excited by their success that they wanted to do another fundraiser as soon as possible, said their teacher, Nina Bacas.

“When I suggested a ‘restaurant,’ they went ballistic!” Nina said. From that moment, “the kids really planned it all,” she said. They decided on an Italian menu for the widest appeal, with a choice of meat lasagna or pasta with marinara sauce. The parents cooked the main dishes and the kids made the salads and many of the desserts.

“Their enthusiasm shows that kids of this age are truly ready to live their faith through action,” noted Nina, who also serves as a Diocesan Co-coordinator for Virginia for Episcopal Relief & Development’s Network of volunteers.

The evening of the event, the lights were dimmed and Italian music played as 100 diners at each of two seatings visited the “restaurant.” While many of the students welcomed guests and served the meal, others gave tableside presentations on Malawi in a game show format, which was a hit with diners. Terra cotta pots—hand painted by the students—held a selection of bread, and the younger children kept busy with Malawi activity sheets made by the students.

In addition to parishioners of St. Mary’s, the dinner brought in many guest from outside of the church, creating a true community-building event in support of Episcopal Relief & Development. “I invited my friends from school. It was really fun to have them see what we were doing at our church,” said Claire, one of the 20 fifth graders who participated.

Proceeds from ticket sales and a tip jar brought in $2,500. A special donation of $1,000 brought the grand total to $3,500 raised for Episcopal Relief & Development’s agricultural work in Malawi. The funds will support a pig farm and other initiatives that meet the needs of local communities.

The Rev. Tim Malone described his experience at the dinner in his Sunday sermon. “A group of fifth graders showed us how to answer God’s call and taught us what it means to love justice and to do mercy,” he said. “How wonderful and how very humbling to learn about sustainable development from a fifth grader.”

Inspired by the kids’ success, St. Mary’s sixth- through eighth-grade students were eager to join in the fun. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, the middle schoolers asked to work with the fifth graders in holding a fundraising dinner. With a total of 35 kids participating, Nina recruited three of the students’ mothers to help.

Two of the moms, Laura McGinnis and Suzanne Stroup, found traditional Haitian recipes online that became the basis of the menu: a choice of beouf a l’Haitienne (braised beef with peppers) or diri ak pwa (rice and beans) with peppers and onions. Meanwhile, several students formed a band, overseen by another mom, Kristine Johnson. In the weeks leading up to the dinner, the kids practiced music, made wall banners and decorated t-shirts to wear at the event. The students also made table signs with the names of Haitian towns, and one artistic student gave each sign a unique design.

The day before the dinner, Nina and Laura used a total of twelve crockpots and three rice cookers to prepare the main dishes. And on the day of the event, Suzanne baked 160 gourmet cupcakes in flavors such as coconut with coconut buttercream and apple spice with cream cheese—“with just one oven!” Nina said.

“A Night for Haiti” took place on April 16. Guests entering the parish hall were greeted with a mango smoothie “appetizer” and worship music from the band. As the table servers brought out the meal, other students talked with diners about Haiti. Each table had a town name, a map of the country and information on Episcopal Relief & Development’s partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti. Guests were challenged to find their table’s town on the maps.

In addition to providing a wonderful evening of fellowship and learning about Episcopal Relief & Development’s work, the event raised more than $2,600 for the Haiti Earthquake Response Fund. The gift will support the agency’s partnership with the Diocese of Haiti, which responded to the immediate needs of survivors following the quake and is now developing a long-term recovery plan to assist communities.

“All the diners LOVED it and can’t wait to come back!” Nina said. The guests included all three of St. Mary’s pastors, who were very pleased with how the event turned out. In addition, she said, “The students’ parents commented to me about how thrilled they were to not only have their children involved with such an important cause, but also that they were learning about God and building self-confidence and skills such as public speaking.”

And the kids? The irrepressible fifth graders are already thinking about their next fundraiser on December 3. They’re still deciding on how they would like to designate the funds. Whatever they decide, though, there’s no doubt—the students will keep their promise once again, and in a big way.

“It’s so inspiring and encouraging to see the compassion of all these students,” said Brian Sellers-Petersen, Episcopal Relief & Development’s Director of Church Engagement. “We’re extremely grateful to benefit from the results of their energy and creativity. Their efforts will go a long way in helping better the lives of people in need in Malawi and Haiti.”