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Filling tummies and feeding minds
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A volunteer at Bethlehem Baptist Church said "if you're happy and you know it, clap you're hands," and everybody clapped because the scent of almost-prepared chicken nuggets had wafted into the room.

Monday marked the beginning of the 23rd annual Youth Summer Feeding and Enrichment Program at the church.

Pastor Hezekiah Benton explained how the program started because some members had expressed concern about children in the community left unsupervised in the summer, who were not eating lunch and a few behaving badly.

"We said wouldn't it be nice if we gave the kids food while their parents were at work, as well as a block of instruction for their personal development," Hezekiah said.

The three-week, Monday through Thursday program for children ages 4 to 12 lasts from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. until July 12, with the exception of July 4, and provides classes, lunch and transportation for any child who wants to participate.

"It's been an excellent arm for our community," Hezekiah said.

Program co-coordinator Doris Benton said free transportation is provided and once word got around that the program was operating, the number of children grew daily.

"The driver said she just went through the neighborhoods blowing the horn and the children came out and got in the van," Doris said.

On Monday 37 children showed up and Tuesday that number more than doubled to 76, with more expected throughout the week.

Hezekiah said a peek year had 286 children participating in the program, which is funded by business and parishioner donations and at first lasted six weeks.

"We shortened the program because it was a challenge because teachers would have to come out of school and start here immediately," Doris said, "and even though it lasts for only two hours - there's plenty to do."

This week the children will learn about church etiquette and social skills. Today the 4- to 6-year-olds learn how to politely greet someone by saying a salutation, their name and something about themselves.

Older children learned about greetings and respectful church behavior on a more intensive level.

Doris said next week the children will work on school review activities in math, language arts, social studies and science.

"They've been out of school for a couple of weeks and they're getting kind of rough," Doris said, "and we try to smooth out the edges and get them ready to go back in the system."

She said the last week is arts and crafts week - the children's favorite.

Qualified volunteers such as current and retired teachers and paraprofessionals are essential to this program, according to Doris. She said teachers have to teach her and others how to make the art and craft projects, so they can teach the children.

"I have 10 thumbs - I can't even glue glitter on a Popsicle stick," Doris said.

She explained how family generations have sustained the program for more than two decades. Her daughter participated, and now her grandchildren do as well.

According to Doris, one mother staying at Cornerstone Lodge (an extended stay motel) brought her children to the program.

"She said she had come here as a child and wanted her children to learn the same things she had learned here," Doris said, "and it was really touching."

Some of the volunteers this year have outgrown the program and returned to help corral children and pass out papers.

"That's the blessed part about the program," Doris said, "because the students come here, and then give back here every year."