Community responds to anti-religion shutdown attempt with donations and support

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Kierra Messick places toy and gift donations for Operation Christmas Child into a collection box set up by Liberty Middle School student Sydney Riley at N’Cahoots Coffee & Shoppe on Saturday. More than 1,100 shoe boxes were packed for needy children by Pratt community members.

A national press release last week outlining a complaint against the USD 382 school district's participation in a Christmas gift-giving project for needy children was meant to shut down student involvement with a Christian organization, but instead it may have sparked a revitalized interest and more support for Operation Christmas Child than ever before in the Pratt community.

Area drop-off coordinator for Operation Christmas Child Michelle Gatlin said there were a lot of people upset over the complaint that stopped the schoolchildren from being able to pack the gift boxes at the school.

"I think it may have prompted some people who don't normally get involved in packing these shoe boxes to help, and I think it may have motivated others to contribute more," she said.

Gatlin said she counted more than 1,100 completed Christmas gift boxes at the First Southern Baptist Church drop-off point on Monday, November 23, the deadline day for shoe box collection.

"We really didn't know what kind of response to expect this year, with COVID-19 here and church attendance down, but we were pleasantly surprised at the interest, especially in the last week," Gatlin said.

According to FSBC secretary Shelley Patterson, the total number of boxes filled and given for Operation Christmas Child this year in Pratt was quite a bit higher than in years past.

"Our own Awana program kids packed 71 boxes," Patterson said. "The Turon Community Church brought in 300 boxes, and the First United Methodist Church brought in 48 completed boxes."

Boxes filled with gifts for needy children around the world were brought to collection points by other community groups, churches in the area, families, friend groups and some even came from the local schools.

“We did end our official participation with Operation Christmas Child because we realized that our teachers and administrators had become too involved with assistance for a group and an activity that had a sectarian purpose," said USD 382 Superintendent Tony Helfrich. "It is our goal to support the healthy development of our students and neither stand in the way of their spiritual development nor be a driver.  We believe one’s faith is a very personal decision with family, one’s faith community, and one’s own self being the important drivers for decisions regarding one’s spirituality.”

With that official statement in mind, Helfrich said students were allowed to collect items for Christmas boxes and pack them on their own, but teachers or other adults in the system could not be involved and support the project.

In a November 13, 2020 press release from The Freedom From Religion Foundation, that organization stated that it had persuaded a Kansas school district to discontinue fundraising for a proselytizing Christian organization.

The FFRF release stated that a concerned staff member at Liberty Middle School had conveyed to the state/church watchdog that USD 382 was preparing to participate in “Operation Christmas Child,” a charity project sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, which describes the program as a “shoebox ministry.” The staff member who filed a complaint has never been identified. However, because the Samaritan's Purse organization is headed by Franklin Graham, the press release stated that FFRF requested the school district take immediate action to ensure that all of its staff members remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacity, especially when their actions alienated non-Christian students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted, including the 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who aren’t religious.

According to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, her organization was pleased that it was able to educate the school district about the true purpose of Samaritan’s Purse (to proselytize Christianity).

“A lot of these groups rely on school authorities being ignorant about their mission,” Gaylor said. “We appreciate how swiftly the district discontinued the fundraising after our alert.”

Those comments, however, were disconcerting for several parents and children in the USD 382 district who became aware of the problem that seemed to be a target for a specific teacher at Liberty Middle School, rather than an issue of separation of church and state. That teacher had responded in a helpful way when several of his students brought the service opportunity into the classroom as a project they thought would be fun to do.

For Tiffany Riley and her daughter, Sydney, a student at Liberty Middle School, the best solution seemed to be to offer a platform outside of school for kids to gather gifts and pack shoe boxes for other children.

On Sunday, November 22, Riley wrote in a Facebook post: "My heart is FULL and broken tonight. My daughter and I helped pack a bunch of Operation Christmas Child boxes. I am FULL because the two of us planned what to add to the community donations, shopped, packed, prayed over the boxes, talking about how much this whole process means to us. Hearing my middle schooler talk about giving to others, how she wished she could see their faces when they get these gifts, put serious thought into each purchase and each box packed filled my heart. I am BLESSED to have such an amazing daughter.

"I am still sad that I only got to share this with my daughter. I am sad that this activity got taken away from the middle school, I am sad that more kids didn’t get to experience the joy of giving Christmas to others. It is so important that we teach our children to help others, Christian or not. If this is not the organization you chose, that’s fine, if you can give someone something to help them, do it and let your kids be part of it. It’s important."

Riley said so many people from the community responded to her daughter’s wish to pack Operation Christmas Child boxes that she received more than $500 in cash donations from those who wanted in on the project.

“What we couldn’t get into the boxes by pickup deadline, we donated to the online project for shipping expenses,” she said.

Patty Fox, manager at The Store Next Door in Pratt, said her daughter, Kassandria Fox, was also involved in gathering together gifts, friends and family members to pack Operation Christmas Child gifts this year.

"I think people just love to give to this ministry," Fox said. "To have a chance to give to kids all over the world, plus share the good news of Jesus Christ, it is a win-win situation for everyone."

Fox said her daughter's group was able to pack 38 shoes boxes this year, compared to 32 last year. Unexpected contributions came in because of the local buzz about the project, making it possible for her to give more than in previous years.