Matthew’s Ministry fills backpacks each week for hungry children

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By Shelagh Clancy

Throughout Brunswick County, children don’t have enough to eat. But there’s a little red wagon in Southport collecting food to make life a little easier for them.

In 2010, a teacher told Kristie Disbrow about a child who didn’t have enough to eat. Disbrow offered to help.

“But Kristie,” the teacher said, “It’s not just this one. There are many hungry families.” Dismayed, Disbrow put a bin on her front porch and started collecting food. That was the beginning of Matthew’s Ministry.

Last year, the organization provided backpacks full of food for 350 needy children at 11 county schools to take home every Friday. Teachers say test scores went up and behavior problems went down.

“It’s hard to pay attention when you’re hungry,” Disbrow said.


A surprising need

Teachers identify children who may be in need of help.

“They’ll see a child who is never really full during free breakfast and lunch (at school),” Disbrow said.

The teacher notifies the school guidance counselor or social worker who then contacts the family to assess the problem.

Hunger finds its way into a home for several reasons. Often the parents can’t find work.

“Times are hard,” Disbrow said.

Or a family member may be sick and get behind due to medical bills. Sometimes a family is new to the area and needs time to get on their feet. Sometimes there’s a housing issue that increases expenses.

“Utilities in Southport are so expensive,” Disbrow said. “You don’t have money for food because you have to pay your power bill. Gas has gone up—everything is higher. And food prices go up in the summer here.”

Every family in the program is connected to a social worker who can connect parents with other programs that may help, such as SNAP (EBT card), food pantries or health services. Families can let their social worker know when they don’t need the program anymore, she said.


The backpack plan

School starts Aug. 27, and the following Friday, children in Matthew’s Ministry program will carry home two backpacks: one with schoolwork and one filled with cereal, pasta and sauce, peanut butter and cans of tuna and soup.

Packs are returned to school Monday morning and filled again for the following Friday.

Donations come from throughout the community. Disbrow no longer has a bin on her front porch, but a red wagon resides in the lobby of Southport Realty on Howe Street (next to Taylor’s). Area residents stop by and drop off food in the wagon. Southport Realty donates a room for Matthew’s Ministry to store food.

The program began with five families and has continued to grow. Disbrow coordinates the program with school principals. Southport and Bolivia elementary schools, Virginia Williamson, Jessie Mae Monroe and South Brunswick middle and high schools are among schools served.

“I think the need was always there. As people have discovered it, the program’s gotten bigger,” Disbrow said.

This year, some events allowed Matthew’s Ministry to help more kids. In April, BB&T awarded Matthew’s Ministry a Lighthouse Project grant. They received $8,000 and service hours from BB&T staff: Some 80 employees helped, buy, pack and deliver food.

“They assembled 1,000 boxes,” Disbrow said.

Also in April, the program was federally recognized as a food bank. As a nonprofit, Matthew’s Ministry may buy food tax-free, but food bank status also allows Disbrow to buy from a food bank in Wilmington for 18 cents per pound.

“The first day I went, I stacked my Tahoe floor to ceiling for $38,” Disbrow said.

In another boon, the group received 3,000 shelf-stable meals from Brunswick Senior Center. The center found the meals didn’t meet their specifications, but it was able to fund them through donations and forward them to Matthew’s Ministry.

“I had 3,000 boxes. I got a little braver and branched out. When that happened, it exploded,” Disbrow said.


A local mom

Disbrow named Matthew’s Ministry for Bible verse Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Disbrow moved to Southport 14 years ago from Raleigh with her husband Jason. She taught school in Raleigh but stayed at home once her boys Hogan and Ford were born.

“I’ve always been involved in the schools,” she said. “I initially saw the need as PTA president. When you’re in the schools all the time, you see things that really blow you away.”

The whole Disbrow family pitches in at Matthew’s Ministry, helping with shopping, packing and delivery.

“My kids were living in the same bubble I was,” Disbrow said. “Now they know—not everybody has food.”


How to help

For the next few weeks, an Adopt a Backpack program is under way as the group prepares for schools to open. See the sidebar for details.

Matthew’s Ministry always accepts food and monetary donations, which are tax-deductible. A Facebook page and a monthly e-newsletter keep community members up-to-date; sign up for the newsletter at matthewsministry.com.

For more information, email matthewsministry@gmail.com.