As the clock ticks toward 4 p.m. when the doors will open, the pace of about 100 volunteers quickens into a downright rush.
St. James Presbyterian feels like a store on the cusp of a massive Black Friday sale.
In a large multipurpose room, volunteers set up rows of tables to display hundreds of boxes filled with carefully folded uniform shirts, pants, shorts, skirts, dresses, underwear and socks from which students soon will choose.
In a nearby room, a dozen youth volunteers sort school supplies and bag them by grade level. Teens fashion a display of books, from Captain Underpants to Pendragon, that will be up for free grabs. Medical volunteers set up to offer free vision and blood pressure checks.
The event at St. James last week marked the first of 18 distribution events offered by Hands of Christ, a growing nonprofit Presbyterian ministry. To date, the ministry has provided free uniform clothes and school supplies to roughly 30,000 local elementary and middle school students.
This year alone, it will serve more than 5,000 children in five Lowcountry counties, says the Rev. Tammy Gregory Brown, its executive director.
For 12 years now, since Brown and a core group modeled it partly after a ministry in her hometown of Austin, Texas, Hands of Christ has grown into a partnership among 29 diverse local congregations within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Yet, longtime volunteer Jim Frye notes that the ministry can serve barely a quarter of children living in poverty in Charleston County alone, huge as the need is.
So, each year the outreach grows.
Hands of Christ was born in 2001 as a partnership between Zion-Olivet and Westminster Presbyterian, where Brown was pastor at the time.
It served 1,009 children that year.
The success was, to its founders, a sign of God’s delight and of a dire need.
As volunteers amass before opening St. James’ doors last week, Brown leads them in prayer: “I pray that when we look into the face of each child and guardian and parent, we will see Your face.”
‘I do what I can’
Claudette Aiken arrives at St. James in the uniform of her temp job at MUSC, anxious to be one of the first people in line. The James Island grandmother must be at work by 5, and the doors to this Hands of Christ event open at 4 p.m.
She stands in line with granddaughter Tyjae Carbo, a friendly 9-year-old in a shirt with purple hearts and matching purple socks. Tyjae, a Murray-LaSaine Elementary student, is a huge reader, and her grandma is determined that she will have the uniform and supplies she needs to succeed in school.
She is helping to raise Tyjae whose mother lives out of state.
“I do what I can,” Aiken says. “This helps a lot, especially with the uniform.”
Once inside, each child is partnered with a volunteer, a personal “shopper” who leads the way. The idea is that for at least a few minutes, a volunteer can connect, and show caring, to each and every child.
Volunteer Ann Carswell takes Tyjae shopping.
While they browse, a teenage girl emerges from a dressing room displaying a snug new pair of navy slacks. Her mom sends her back, suggesting a larger size.
A teen volunteer walks by with a girl looking for clothes. “Oh, you play basketball too ...”
Carswell moves on to boxes full of new socks, digging past plain white ones to produce two pair with swirls of hot pink and turquoise and lime green.
Tyjae’s eyes light up, and she thrusts out her shopping bag.
Time to shop
Martha Eden grew up in St. James Presbyterian and, now retired, still serves it.
She has volunteered since the church joined Hands for Christ five or six years ago.
“It’s been wonderful!” she says, grinning a smile that welcomes every child to their first stop, the shorts and pants table, as she has every year.
If the large room functions like a store, Eden is the consummate saleswoman.
When a mother comes in with her three children, balancing an energetic toddler on one hip, Eden jumps in to help her choose sizes and styles.
“What do you think of this, Mom?” she asks. “Isn’t that cute?”
When a little girl enters timidly, Eden tames her contagious smile, leans over and asks, “What size do you wear, sweetheart?”
She sifts through to find a tiny little khaki skort.
“Do you like it?” Eden asks.
The girl nods.
“Me too. You are going to look so pretty when you go to school!” Eden says, setting the skort into the girl’s bag.
When longtime Hands of Christ volunteer Frye retired from the steel industry, he found himself with lots of time and not much to do. So, he went to Mary Ford Elementary’s principal.
Could a volunteer help out?
She looked at him with suspicion. She’d never had a strange man walk in the door and offer to volunteer.
The staff put him to work shelving books in the library.
Then one day, a teacher summoned him. A student refused to get up and join the class for lunch. She needed to get to the cafeteria.
Would Frye sit with the child?
So, he sat.
He and the student talked. And talked.
Eventually, the student agreed to go lunch. But when the boy stood, his pants slid down. He was wearing men’s pants, and he was a small boy.
“It was obvious what the problem was,” Frye recalls. “He was embarrassed to death. He couldn’t do his schoolwork or anything else.”
Frye retrieved a needle and thread for a temporary fix. Then, he left to get the student a new uniform.
It’s why even when the pre-school year distribution stampede ends, Hands of Christ keeps going. The ministry also provides about 250 emergency school uniforms year round.
Schools can call any time, and volunteers will bring clothes to the school.
“To see those smiles and to learn so many stories ...” Frye says, pausing. “Well, there’s such a huge need for this.”
Outside St. James, as the day’s heat and humidity cool into late evening, laughter and warm greetings burble through the crowded parking lot. Children race around with paper bags full of new clothes and supplies.
Inside, volunteers have served 319 children and soon will pack up hundreds of boxes. Some have been working since 8 that morning.
At 8 a.m. the next day, many will begin the entire process again, this time at Mount Pleasant Presbyterian. The next day, they will go to Edisto Presbyterian, then off to Colleton County, then to Johns Island and ...
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
Martha Eden (from left), Nanette Tumbleston and Elisha Clyburn help Ella Brackman (left) and Tyra White, both 6-year-olds, find the right style and size clothing for school during a Hands of Christ event at St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island.×
Tyjae Carbo, 9, gets a vision check at Hands of Christ, an effort by a group of nearly 30 local churches, mostly Presbyterian, to supply about 3,500 Charleston County children with school supplies and uniform clothes. St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island was the first in a series of local stops. Hands of Christ is an 11-year-old effort by a group of nearly 30 local churches, mostly Presbyterian, to supply about 3,500 Charleston County children with school supplies and uniform clothes. St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island was the first in a series of local stops.×
Students volunteering from Academic Magnet High School helped children pick a book to take home.×
Volunteer Ann Carswell (center) and other volunteers helped those who came navigate the room where children could receive clothing for school.×
Volunteer LaBrisha Williams, 12, helped organize school supplies for the children.×