By Kelsey Buckner
It’s hot outside, but the oven is even hotter as the 23 class participants pack themselves into a small apartment complex office. As the oven bakes mini frittatas and heats up the office, the front and back door are left open trying to get a cross breeze blowing through. Even though the conditions are not ideal, these women keep coming back, anxious to learn something new that will help them improve their lifestyles and be better moms.
Buckner has provided a summer feeding program for children at the Belaire apartment complex in Longview for several years. Conversation between Kimberly Harris, Belaire’s manager, and Buckner Family Hope Center Director Jane Ann Crowson, inspired Buckner to go deeper at Belaire.
Excited by the opportunity to build deeper relationships with vulnerable families at Belaire Manor, Crowson contacted her former business partner and fellow cooking enthusiast Julee Rachels with an idea for a nutrition class.
Fit Life was designed specifically for low-income mothers at Belaire who want to learn how to cook healthy kid-friendly foods for their families with the little money they have. This 12-week program includes cooking lessons, exercise tips, nutrition information, Bible study and fellowship. After each class, the women take home a case of water, a loaf of bread, and all the ingredients to cook the recipes learned that day.
“Julee is very passionate about this type of thing,” Crowson said, “so she developed a new type of curriculum geared toward low-income women who have to shop with food stamps, can’t serve gourmet meals, and have to feed larger numbers of people with less money and less kitchen equipment.”
While the mothers are in class, the children are nearby under some shade trees at ‘Wednesday Kids’ learning about God, crafting, singing songs and playing games - they learn from Alpine Church of Christ volunteers. The church brings about 15-25 youth each Wednesday to run the children’s program.
Melissa Kitchens, one of the student ministers at Alpine, said she sees their constant ministry empowering the children.
“I hope it strengthens them not only with the Bible lesson, but also with a consistent group of people that come and love on them every week,” she said. “Just giving them something to look forward to - I think that strengthens them emotionally.”
One young boy was excited to share what he learned so far from Alpine and expressed how he enjoys seeing the church each week.
“I like coming here because we get to learn about God,” he said. “I learned that He helps people a lot and that He’s a million years old.”
Wednesday’s Kids wraps up around noon and a new set of volunteers arrives to help serve lunch for the summer feeding program. Buckner facilitates summer feeding at Belaire Manor and Hidden Hills Monday through Friday all summer in collaboration with the East Texas Food Bank. A lot of times the meals served are the only meals the children eat in a day. The program ensures a meal to help out families.
While the children settle into picnic tables and dig in, the ladies’ class is wrapping up. Bakir Mazone, a mom with perfect attendance at Fit Life, said she likes getting together with the other women and learning new things. She added that she’s started making healthier decisions for her family.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know before I got to this class,” Mazone said. “The calories, diabetes and high blood pressure. I have started buying more water and less juice.”
Her classmate, Robin Armstrong, said she is grateful for Harris, who saw a need and took action.
“People that come here, I pray for them and I pray for myself,” Armstrong said. “Especially for Kimberly (Harris), because I feel like if it wasn’t for her making this happen, Belaire’s women would just do anything, but since she’s here, it’s bringing everybody together. We just need change and she shows that - she does care about the residents out here.”
Through Fit Life, the women have grown to care about each other, too. Part of Rachels’ curriculum gets the women to interact with each other on a deeper level. At the end of each class they fill out a community sheet with any prayer requests or needs they have. Before they leave, they take someone else’s sheet and do an act of kindness for them that week.
Harris said she is pleased with the class Rachels is teaching and notices a change in the dynamic of Belaire.
“They love it and they have come together,” Harris said. “There’s less bickering with each other since we’ve started the class.”
Rachels said based on the effectiveness of the program, she plans to continue the class and possibly find a permanent facility. She said it feels good to do what she does and to her it is about doing things for others.
“It means more to me when I do something for somebody else than for myself,” Rachels said. “It makes you feel good.
The words families have shared are a testimony to what Harris, Crowson, Rachels and church volunteers do for this apartment complex.
Chorcelle Taylor, a young lady who participates in the class expressed her joy for being given the opportunity to learn and grow as a person with Fit Life. She said what Rachels does for them makes her feel worthy.
“It feels good to be around a bunch of women in this environment,” Taylor said, “and it makes you feel better about yourself to know that there are other women around you that want to do better in life.”
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