It's a moment of tremendous angst, joy, trepidation and, yes, even sorrow: the first day of school.
As most local school children head back to school this week, the area's faith community is sending them forth with everything from God's blessings to new uniform clothes to book bags filled with school supplies and even food.
Many local churches are holding their popular blessings of the book bag events today, a time when young parishioners bring their bags to the altars before toting them back into a world of peers and schoolwork - not to mention more daunting pressures of bullies, drugs and violence.
Other houses of worship are adopting entire school classes for the year. Some are busy stuffing donated book bags with supplies. Still others are handing out donated uniform clothes to those in need. The list goes on.
For instance, about 30 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations around town have been working with its Hands of Christ ministry, which gave free uniform clothes and school supplies to about 5,000 students in need over three weeks of donation events that ended Saturday.? They did that despite someone stealing nearly 400 pairs of pants from the ministry as its distributions began last month.
And at least 15 churches from around Charleston County have gotten 700 children with open cases of abuse and neglect ready for school through the nonprofit HALOS.
One of them, an 8-year-old boy, recently went to live with his grandmother after his mother was killed during a robbery in their home. His grandmother wants to help but struggles on her fixed income. HALOS' Kinship Care Program stepped in, along with the churches supporting it, says Kim Clifton, executive director of HALOS.
The nonprofit's founder, Dr. Eve Spratt, envisioned local people coming together to meet the needs of child abuse and neglect victims. And so they have.
"The faith community responded, and for over 17 years has worked with HALOS to ensure that children with open cases of abuse and neglect return to school excited and ready to learn with new supplies and uniforms," Clifton says.
And HALOS isn't alone in receiving those blessings and the toil of volunteers.
The Lowcountry's countless back-to-school efforts aren't only tackling the tangible stuff children need to succeed in school. Churches also are calling on high this weekend.
Today, St. Francis, a new Episcopal mission church in West Ashley, is holding its second blessing of book bags (and laptop cases, iPads, whatever tools students and teachers use).
"We hope to send them back on the right foot and remember that God is with them throughout the school year," says Andrea McKellar, administrative assistant with The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
For the second year, St. Francis also is adopting a first-grade class at Lambs Elementary in North Charleston where junior warden Justin Seagle is a teacher. Last year, members donated school supplies, winter coats and handmade blankets for students for Christmas. And when a student's mother lost her job, the mission helped cover her rent until she found work so they would not become homeless.
This year, St. Francis members already have collected enough school supplies to cover the class all year.
"This takes the burden off of parents that are struggling financially and keeps an even starting point for all the students in the class so no one is singled out by not having something," McKellar says.
And at Holy Trinity on Folly Road, children will pile their backpacks onto the altar for a blessing today. Teachers and parents also receive prayers. It's like a Blessing of the Fleet, a prayer for a safe and bountiful coming season, says the Rev. David Dubay, rector of Holy Trinity and a father of three.
"It helps them keep their eye on the Lord as they move forward," Dubay says. "There are struggles and joys involved with school. This puts them in the hands of the Lord."
St. George's Episcopal in Summerville also will bless book bags today, along with other school tools.
"It is reassuring for children - and grown-ups - to know they have been prayed for by their faith community, by people who care for them," vestry member Ellen Dooley says.
"They are carrying those blessed items out into the world with them every day, visible reminders of the loving hands and hearts that were lifted in prayer for their well-being."
Filling book bags
Along with filling souls comes the practical need to fill book bags - and stomachs - so students have the tangible tools to learn.
For instance, several local churches are collecting book bags for The Lowcountry Food Bank's BackPack Buddies.
The program provides donated food to students in need over weekends when free and reduced school lunches are not available.
The program distributed backpacks filled with donated food to 3,200 children prior to school dismissal each Friday during the 2012-13 school year. BackPack Buddies distributed 303,288 pounds of food to school children. For more, go to www.lowcountryfoodbank.org.
Other churches are tackling other needs.
Although it has few children in its congregation, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Summerville still is blessing book bags filled with donated school supplies for One80 Place, formerly named Crisis Ministries.
Still others are taking part in Back to School with HALOS.
Parishioners stuff book bags with school supplies for the nonprofit HALOS, which assists children who are in the care of the state Department of Social Services due to abuse and neglect. For more, go to www.charlestonhalos.org.
The Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan's Island collected nearly 60 stocked book bags for HALOS, whose founder is a parishioner of the church, says its rector, the Very Rev. John Burwell.
"Think back to those days when you headed off to school for a new school year and you had your brand-new book bag on your back. Inside it was a shiny new Trapper Keeper and a whole pack of notebook paper and all kinds of pencils and protractors and rulers and crayons and maybe some extra rubber erasers for the pencil tips," Burwell says. "Remember how you couldn't wait to use all that great stuff?"
Holy Cross wants to ensure all children start school that way, Burwell adds.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Reform Jewish congregation in Charleston, also held a back-to-school drive for HALOS to help a record number of children in need of uniform clothes, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander says.
And Grace Episcopal members sponsored dozens of HALOS children by purchasing new uniform clothes and school supplies, along with raising monetary donations.
Other houses of worship are gathering book bags filled with supplies to give children at risk of going without. St. Paul's Church in Summerville, for example, gave away 100 bags of school supplies last weekend.
Seacoast Church throws an annual Back to School Bash, a fun-filled morning in early August when kids can get backpacks, school supplies and even haircuts. This year, the church's North Charleston Dream Center gave out 600 stuffed book bags.
And every year, leading up to school starting, St. Thomas Episcopal in Park Circle collects school supplies for neighborhood elementary school students in need. Today, the church is holding a picnic and school supply blessing for its youth.
"We bless and pray over them to send them off to the school year with love and encouragement. It is a celebration both of our own youth and of the importance of learning and helping to facilitate that learning in ways we are able," says member Lauren Bush, who holds the vestry's outreach position.
Grace Episcopal in downtown Charleston has held its book bag blessing since 1998 and last year drew about 100 kids to the altar. Today, children who take part will receive a small laminated card with a "bookbag prayer" on it to carry with them as they head back to school:
"Bless this bag upon our back.
Bless our books, our pens and snack.
Bless us each and every day,
And be among us as we play.
Bless each task and every game;
This we pray in Jesus' name. Amen."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.