Thousands of people clogged South Meridian on Saturday morning in search of a helping hand.
Convoy of Hope, a faith-based non-profit group, teamed up with Bethel Life Center and dozens of other churches and businesses to offer groceries, clothing, health services such as dental screenings and immunizations, school supplies and haircuts to people who needed them. Families also could get portraits taken, something many of them had never done.
Convoy of Hope organizes community outreach events across the country and also has projects in other parts of the world, including providing food and clean water to children and responding to natural disasters.
The grounds of Bethel Life Center were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder at times with people making their way through tents set up to shade people from the sun. The entrance opened at 10 a.m., but people started getting in line as early as 4 a.m. Traffic on South Meridian was backed up for blocks with police directing traffic. By 11:30 a.m., 3,500 people had made their way through lines and into the service tents. Crowds became so large by mid-morning that the entrance was closed to people who weren’t already in line.
“We’re non-stop,” volunteer Ashley Wilgus said as she helped in a tent where people could pick up clothing. “Until all the clothes and groceries run out, we’ll be here.”
Parents and children milled about the clothing tent picking out three outfits per family member. A sign explained than an outfit could mean three tops and three pairs of pants or a dress and two tops and two pairs of pants or a suit and two tops and two pairs of pants. Families also could pick out socks, shoes, belts, purses and hats.
Melissa Morales searched the racks of clothing for herself and her two children after picking up some hygiene items and breast cancer information. The National Breast Cancer Foundation was on site to offer education, support and early detection services to underserved women.
Morales said she heard about the event from a food bank. She got in line about 8 a.m.
“We’re getting school supplies and food,” she said.
Children also were lining up for stuffed animals, carefully making their choices. A kids’ zone offered carnival games, pony rides and inflatables.
Convoy of Hope also was serving a free lunch.
Services and goods were donated by the “generous people of Wichita,” said coordinator Gail Starnes, who is the children’s pastor at Bethel life Center.
She said Bethel and other churches began planning the event almost a year and a half ago.
Hundreds of volunteers turned out to help.
“Last night our sanctuary was full, and it usually holds about 900 people comfortably,” Starnes said.
Turnout was bigger than organizers expected, but she said things were running smoothly. There were a few alerts on walkie-talkies about lost children and people suffering from heat exhaustion.
“Traffic is about the biggest thing we’ve had to deal with,” Starnes said.
People were helped without having to provide proof of income. Identification was required for some services, such as immunizations. Wristbands were needed to get new shoes for children.
But for the most part, Starnes said, it was a no-questions-asked affair.
“If they’re willing to stand in lines like this, they probably have needs,” she said.