Ask most people what they remember about Vacation Bible School and they will mention Bible stories, catchy songs, making cool crafts and playing games outdoors.

Friends are often made at the annual summer sessions. Most were held in the daytime years ago, but evening seems to fit our way of life these days.

Alcoa First United Methodist wrapped up its VBS this week, like many others. Children ages 2 up through eighth grade came each night for a meal under the big tent and lots of activities. Sherry Shelton, director of students and children, said there were probably 200 children and youth who attended and another 125 volunteers.

It was a week, she and her team hope, that will provide lots of positive memories but also a foundation for what these young people can do in service to others their entire lives.

The right focus

Shelton has been with Alcoa First UMC for 18 years, and in each of those years VBS students have worked on both a local and international project. The theme for VBS this time was “Deep Water Discovery: God is With Me Wherever I Go.” So the focus became water.

A little research by assistant Brooke Strayn, and Shelton and her staff found TivaWater, a local company based in Knoxville that provides water filters for those in developing nations, like Uganda and Guatemala. The decision was made to partner with them.

Each day of VBS, participants brought in their pennies, dimes, quarters and dollars to donate to the cause. Shelton said the goal was to raise $700. That money, she said, would provide seven families in Uganda with water filters that will last them a minimum of five years.

Olivia Harris, brand and business development manager for TivaWater, came to VBS at Alcoa Wednesday. She said TivaWater has provided 15,000 water filters to families across the globe, but mainly in Uganda and Guatemala. A Knoxville man, Neal Caldwell, invented the water filters they use.

An estimated 748 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. These filters clean the water in the home, the safest place to purify water and prevent cross-contamination. TivaWater partners with churches and nonprofits who donate the funding to distribute the devices.

The good news: Alcoa First UMC and its VBS were able to collect $825, enough to help eight families.

Closer to home

In addition to this international project, Alcoa First UMC and its VBS dedicated themselves to a local outreach project. This one involves providing backpacks and school supplies to students in Alcoa City Schools.

Years ago, Shelton explained, a fund was set up called Mr. P’s Helping Hands, in memory and honor of former Alcoa teacher Dennis Pershing, a man with a huge heart for children.

His family attends Alcoa First UMC. They started the fund and students have helped support it over the years.

Wednesday evening, youth at the church went shopping for supplies, which were then divided up and placed in backpacks.

About 45 backpacks were loaded and will be ready to hand out, Shelton said. Students in kindergarten through high school will benefit.

What is learned

VBS is over and done for 2016, but Shelton said these children and youth are being taught valuable lessons they can take with them into adulthood.

“They learn that part of being a Christian is service and being the hands and feet of Jesus,” she said.

The meals each night, the T-shirts and anything else associated with this VBS were provided at no cost to participants, thanks to the church and sponsors.

“This is our biggest community outreach,” Shelton said. It starts with dinner under a tent in Springbrook Park.

The fact Alcoa First UMC is “smack dab” in the middle of Alcoa is one reason so many attend, Shelton said. “Kids can walk from their neighborhoods.”

Planning started months ago. Shelton said she always works hand-in-hand with Debbie Walsh, the music leader of VBS. Walsh chooses the theme and they run with it.

Harris said watching the Alcoa VBS children get behind the water filter project renews her passion as well. She has been to Uganda six times and has seen the impact TivaWater is having thanks to partners like this church.

“It was so cool and very encouraging to see children so young being involved,” Harris said. “Nobody is too young to make a difference and I love they are instilling that lesson. I feel honored to be partnering with them.”

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