On July 27, the Daviess County 4-H Fairground was buzzing with hundreds of children and their caregivers during the annual Bethel Mall event. For nearly 20 years, Bethel UMC in Washington, IN, has organized the Bethel Mall – a free event where children receive brand new school supplies, clothes, shoes, and more. This year, the church served nearly 800 children from around the community as they prepared for the new school year.

Terri Hamilton, the leader of the event team for this year, explained, “God is our leader. We just co-direct.”

God has a hand in the event, just as He had a hand in its beginnings. Nineteen years ago, Bethel UMC member Lori Gaither had a vision of supplying school supplies for children in need. A group of women at the church began collecting school supplies in the church basement to hand out to families during “back-to-school” season. As years went on and the event grew bigger, the location changed to larger venues. Now the event is held at the 4-H Fairground near Eastside Park.

All Daviess County children are eligible to participate in Bethel Mall. Each child, accompanied by an adult, registers for the event. Their school, grade, and teacher are noted, sizes are documented, and an event lanyard is given to the child. As they move from station to station, adult volunteers are on-hand to lovingly guide them through the “shopping” process. Multiple Latino and Haitian interpreters are on site for those needing language help. At checkout, each child is specifically told that Jesus loves them.

Each child, Preschool through 8th grade, receives a brand-new backpack, all the supplies on their particular teacher’s list, a new pair of shoes, as well as clothing. Each child also receives toiletries including a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and deodorant for older kids. High school children receive basic supplies as well.

A few years ago, area hairdressers heard about the event, and now there are multiple stations where kids and adults can receive free haircuts. Area churches set up a food court on-site and serve free breakfast and lunch to attendees. The Daviess Community Hospital Women’s Health Center set up booths to share information about car seat and booster seat safety, safe sleeping procedures, and other health issues related to women and children.

Although Bethel Mall is led by members of Bethel UMC, the event is truly a community effort as multiple area churches and businesses contribute finances and volunteers to help make it a success.

Local companies like Perdue Farms and Grain Processing Corporation lead the community with donations and employee volunteers. (Office Express matched the Grain Processing Corporation donations.) Area law enforcement personnel attend the event to provide security and to be “Jesus in a uniform” to all who are there. The Washington Hatchets football team comes on board to “do the heavy lifting” as the squad gets all the items moved and set up at the fairground.

A Prayer Tent is set up for people to write down prayer requests that are then prayed over by Bethel UMC the following day. If someone doesn’t have a prayer request to share, they are invited to share something they are thankful for instead to add to the Blessing Chain.

It takes a lot of time and effort to pull off an event of this magnitude. All year long, the core team at Bethel UMC is planning, fundraising, purchasing and organizing items, and marketing this event. Amazingly, they have never run out of supplies for the children, and for that, they are thankful to God and the many area organizations and individuals that donate selflessly to the Bethel Mall.

Photos by Conference Assistant Katie Swisher