Convoy of Hope sees record turnout

Volunteer Racheal Page hands out meals during the Convoy of Hope event at the Bethel Life Center on Saturday. Convoy of Hope delivers free food, goods and services to residents in need.
Volunteer Racheal Page hands out meals during the Convoy of Hope event at the Bethel Life Center on Saturday. Convoy of Hope delivers free food, goods and services to residents in need. The Wichita Eagle

They began lining up long before dawn for an event that wouldn’t begin for nearly six hours.

That’s how eager they were for a shot at some school supplies, clothes, shoes, groceries … and hope.

The Convoy of Hope at the Bethel Life Center was supposed to get underway at 10 a.m. Saturday, but when organizers saw how long the lines were and how early they had formed, they opened up shortly before 8.

“We want to bring a day of hope” for families in need, said Stacie Cathcart, director of the Wichita event that in its third year brought an estimated $1 million worth of free goods and services.

Dozens of sponsors provided goods and services, and more than 1,000 volunteers converged to help the families in need. Groceries were paid for with cash donations.

By mid-afternoon, nearly 8,400 people had received assistance – “the biggest numbers we’ve ever seen,” Cathcart said.

Long lines snaked through the Bethel Life grounds next to Meridian and I-235 on the steamy August day. It was not unusual for participants to wait a half-hour or more in one line and then repeat the feat again and again.

“Times are tough right now,” said Sheala French, who has four children between the ages of 3 and 6 and recently lost her job. “We figured we could use all the help we can get for school,” she said.

Those who attended could receive free immunizations, breast exams, sports physicals – even family portraits.

“That’s one of our favorite parts,” Cathcart said of the family pictures.

Shannon Vontress’ two children, 10-year-old Tatianah and 6-year-old Andre, were eager to show off the backpacks they were given: Andre’s had flames flickering on the back and Tatianah’s was a bright green.

“With two kids and one income, it’s really a blessing,” Vontress said of Saturday’s event.

But hundreds of people went home disappointed. Event organizers gave out 1,500 backpacks filled with school supplies, but could have easily given out hundreds more. Charlene Klug stood in line for 45 minutes with her two sons only to discover there were no more backpacks.

“It’s kinda sad, but we’ll figure it out,” said Klug, who added that she was “trying not to fall over from heat stroke.”

Klug and her friend Julie De La Rosa just moved to Wichita from Denver.

“We’re kinda struggling when it’s coming to getting school supplies for the kids,” said De La Rosa, who has a 10-year-old boy.

Despite their bad luck with getting backpacks, De La Rosa and Klug were impressed by what they saw on Saturday.

“It’s huge,” De La Rosa said. “It’s pretty amazing that everyone comes together like this to help.”

Organizers had increased the number of backpacks filled with school supplies by more than one-third over the previous year, but that turned out to be not nearly enough.

“We did not see this kind of need last year,” Cathcart said. “We see this kind of need, we’re going to be ready for it next year.

“We do not want people walking away without services. We are not OK with that.”

Scott Dryden, pastor of Word of Life Church, said the long lines reflect a growing number of families in need.

“The disparity is just getting greater,” Dryden said. “We see that. That’s why we all need to come together.”

Mayor Jeff Longwell called the massive turnout for goods and services “a little bit overwhelming.”

“Certainly, we recognize there’s a need,” Longwell said. “It’s nice that people are coming to come together to fill that need.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.