Florida Congregation Pays Debt to Help Students Graduate

Thanks to the generous gifts of Idlewood Baptist Church, high school seniors in the Tampa Bay suburbs are one step closer to walking across the stage.

In Florida, the pandemic recession created a burden on many families that increased food insecurity. As parents struggled to make ends meet, students started falling behind on their lunch debts, which in Florida can result in a student not graduating due to debts owed to the district.

Seeing the need in the community, Pastor Ken Whitten and the Idlewood Baptist Church pitched in to help.

“[Those parents] couldn’t afford to send money with their kids for lunch during these hard times,” he said. “We wanted to demonstrate what the gospel demonstrates for us. God gave us an opportunity to give a visual expression of the verbal message of the gospel. “I always ask, ‘If our church were gone tomorrow, would our community miss it?’”

Approached by an anonymous member of the congregation, Whitten and his congregation were able to help eradicate $38,367 in school lunch debt for thousands of juniors and seniors in Hillsborough County schools.

Idlewood Director of Missions, Yerusha Bunag, said, “Hillsborough County’s total student lunch debt was over $100,000. So in that conversation we asked what this debt means to a family and how it affects them. It affects them at graduation when it needs to be paid. That’s why the focus went to juniors and seniors in that school system.”

This is not Idlewood’s first foray into the educational sphere. Six years ago, the congregation launched a series of partnerships designed to help orphans and low income families in surrounding Title I schools. 

“We had already been working with schools through a mentoring program we had initiated,” Bunag said. “It started with one school but then moved into others. We’ve had hundreds of members involved since then.”

Additionally, during the COVID-19 shutdowns, members distributed grab-and-go lunches to students, as well as boxes filled with food and toiletries for their families.

“He knew of us [through the previous superintendent] and that we were already helping schools. It was a huge blessing for them that the church was already committed to investing in the lives of students and teachers,” Bunag said.

One of the partnering school districts that received funds from Idlewood to help erase students debt was Pasco County Schools. The Superintendent Kurt Browning is a member at Idlewood.

Browning said, “In this time, parents are stressed, working less or even unemployed, all while racking up lunch debt. By providing complete debt forgiveness, students could come back in August with a clean slate.

“This act puts feet to the Gospel. [Idlewood is] going into the community. This ministry speaks to our communities that there are people … who care for their needs. Student lunch debt was forgiven, and Christ was glorified because of it.”

Source: Baptist Press