Community Support Month in February: Where big ideas start small

Some great things come from a lone idea. The idea then is discussed with others, some brainstorming takes place and the next thing you know Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is supporting the idea with a proclamation that the month of February will be called “Community Support Month” in Michigan.

That is how it happened for the small congregation of Lowell United Methodist Church. Community Support Month is a program that will recognize healthcare workers, first responders, educators, and service workers each week in February. Davin Risk, Grand Rapids resident and worship director at Lowell United Methodist Church, was part of the thinktank that started the project in 2022.

Davin Risk (left) and the Rev. Brad Brillhart from Lowell United Methodist Church hold copies of a proclimation from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, declaring February “Community Support Month” in Michigan.

“We were doing some visioning with our leadership at the church and through that process we were thinking about the world around us and asked ‘okay what are we seeing?’” says Risk. “It was a lot of angst and people living in anxious times. We thought about what could we do to show some appreciation for those (four groups). We came up with the idea of picking a group of people each week and giving them a gift bag with little things in it. Also, there is a prayer in there specific to that industry.”

Deciding who should be recognized and how

Clearly there were many groups that probably deserved recognition but when it came to decide, the church agreed upon four:  health care workers (doctors and nurses), educators (teachers, support staff and bus drivers), first responders (police, fire and EMTs) and service workers (fast food, grocery workers and others). The church saw how these four groups shared a lot of risk during the pandemic but also were not necessarily treated very well during those anxious times.

“Health care workers were getting bashed,” says Risk. “First responders and police were culturally going through struggles, and then educators had to completely adapt to everything that they know on how to teach and parents’ frustrations were spilling over onto educators. The last group was service workers. Cashiers and restaurant workers — all of those frontline workers — typically make the lowest wages and put up with the most.”

Last year, the church decided to start small by providing about 25 gift bags for each group. It was a modest approach that grew pretty quickly. The church not only reached their goal of raising $700, but once the word spread in a grassroots way, that number reached $3,000 and they ended up recognizing more than 2,000 people in Lowell and surrounding communities. Using the momentum from last year, the church this year decided to create significantly more gift bags along with having more volunteers help, including a group of 20 students from Lowell High School. This past Saturday the volunteers packed more than 1,000 bags. The gift bags were filled with lots of goodies such as snacks, hand sanitizer, tissue packets, lip balm and industry-specific products such as hand warmers for school bus drivers or small notebooks for police officers.

Connecting with other churches and the entire state of Michigan

Also, in preparing for this year, Lowell United Methodist Church hoped to reach more people outside of Lowell, including Grand Rapids. Several churches in Grand Rapids — First United Methodist, Trinity United, Northlawn United, and Aldergates United — met with leaders in Lowell and decided they will all be a part of this year’s Community Support Month. Matt Witkowski, director of community ministries at Trinity United Methodists in Grand Rapids, admired the idea when he first heard it.

“I love the church getting outside the walls, when you’re able to connect with the community — that’s number one,” Witkowski says. “Coming out of COVID having a real true appreciation for all those fields. There should be a deeper appreciation.”

This year Trinity United Methodist has decided to start small by creating 50 gift bags each week throughout the month. Intergenerational groups will work on the project together and a weekly panel will help educate people on the four job areas and speak about appreciation, all with the goal of getting residents to connect with their community.

“We have three or four people each week who will be on a panel and will have a couple questions for them about the highs and lows of their job,” says Witkowski. “We’re trying to get a behind-the-scenes peek about the field and the work they are doing for the community about some of the stuff that is not easily known and get directly from them.”

The Lowell congregation was more than happy to share its idea with other churches, but in the process, something exciting also happened. They reached out to the governor’s office, and the idea was so popular that now the whole state of Michigan is involved.

“Something that was small now has an official declaration on the books … in Michigan that February is Community Support Month,” says Risk. “Next year we’ll go for a national declaration and maybe we can get the White House to recognize it.”

Recently the church began a partnership with Betten Baker Auto Dealership and Meijer grocery store that have both provided money to help support the endeavor.

Not about self-recognition

And it all started with an idea: A group of thoughtful people in Lowell wanted to show their appreciation for workers who helped residents on a daily basis. That kernel grew into something bigger and has now gained momentum into several cities, including Grand Rapids and Chicago. It has become an inspiring and passionate venture that has gone beyond recognition.

“This to me is the embodiment of love,” says Risk. “This isn’t to promote the church. The purpose of this is to love and to spread love. When you lead with that, it kind of breaks down some walls for people as well. To see that happen and organically grow the way it has, it is really exciting. It is invigorating and reminds you of why you get involved in ministry in the first place.”

Community Support Month is about having a positive effect on as many lives as possible. Witkowski has been impressed with Lowell’s openness to share their great idea with others.

“Releasing their idea into the world so others can take it and not just hold it selfishly for themselves — it’s an idea that they want to really institute change,” says Witkowski. “Some ministries want to hold onto ideas for themselves: ‘We want this to be just us.’ But when you are inviting others and hoping that it grows and hoping to release it and let it go, it can affect more lives. I think that is pretty sweet.”

There are many ways to assist with Community Support Month. Individuals and businesses can donate money or their time to help with the program. A GoFund Me page has been created as well. For more information on how to help, email Risk at [email protected] or go to the Community Support Month Project Facebook page.

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