The grounds of Christ Church in Apple Valley take on the atmosphere of a carnival for the Summer Loaves program on Wednesday nights this time of year.
The program, a part of the nonprofit Reaching Up Ministries, provides a week's worth of lunches each week from June through August for 200 school-age children from about 60 families who live in the Apple Valley-Eagan-Rosemount district.
But there's a lot more going on than food distribution.
Over here, a dozen or more children play "marshmallow" with a giant, colorful parachute, making it billow above their heads, then jumping under it when the leader shouts the magic word.
Over there, another group is playing "book bingo" with storybooks as prizes.
On the small patio out front, the nondenominational church's youth group grills hot dogs and lays out chips, watermelon and donated cookies and pastries – free for everybody.
At the far end of the parking lot, volunteers from FaithPoint Lutheran Church in New Prague have tables full of clothes donated by consignment shops and church and community members, free for anybody who needs them.
Inside, there are classes for children and their parents, hugs aplenty and a plethora of volunteers handing out grocery sacks containing a loaf of bread, a packet of lunch meat, five slices of cheese, a big bag of chips and fruit cups or other snacks. Breads and pastries donated by Panera are wrapped and distributed, too.
Children are referred by school social workers. During the school year, they receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch. But during the summer months, the district doesn't provide those meals.
Amanda Lamm, 31, of Apple Valley, came to the church on a recent Wednesday night with her daughter, Jaylee, 10. She also has two boys, ages 9 and 4.
As Lamm stepped through the open door, she walked into the embrace of both Jia Brown, executive director of Reaching Up Ministries and Jennifer Dodd, program manager.
"I literally want to cry every time I come here," Lamm said. "These people have the biggest hearts of anybody."
Lamm said the food — she gets three bags, one for each child — helps a lot to stretch the family's food dollar.
"When they go to school, they have breakfast and lunch at school," she said. "But now that they're home during the summer, all day long it's 'Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!' "
Lamm also comes for the fellowship and friendship. Jaylee gets to play with the other children and make new friends.
"Honestly, I don't know what we did without it before and I don't know what we'd do if it wasn't here now."
Brishaina Talley, 33, of Burnsville, works as a certified medical assistant at HealthPartners in Cottage Grove, but still money is tight.
As her three boys, ages 11, 10 and 4, scarfed down hot dogs and cookies, she took a much-needed break on a bench near the grill before loading her boys and the grocery bags into her car.
Summer Loaves is just one of the programs offered by Reaching Up Ministries, a nonprofit that is funded 100 percent by donations. Cub Foods in Apple Valley has been a major supporter. Last year, other stores, including Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, participated.
In 2013, the program served 100 children; this year it's doubled to 200, said Brown.
School districts in which 50 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-prices lunches provide breakfast and lunch during the summer months. In District 196, one in four children is eligible, so meals are not provided when school isn't in session.
Although the grocery sacks of food are just for the children and families in the Summer Loaves program, everybody is welcome to participate in the games, activities and free meal.
Brown and Dodd are the only paid employees of Reaching Up Ministries, which is headquartered at Christ Church. The group partners with local churches, schools, businesses, county agencies and nonprofits to raise money, buy food and package it for the Summer Loaves program. Another $5,500 is needed to complete the mission this summer. Brown and Dodd hope it can be expanded again next summer.
Each Wednesday, volunteers show up about 4 p.m. and work in assembly lines to pack the 200 grocery bags. The meat and cheese is kept refrigerated until the families show up. Twenty or 30 bags are delivered by volunteers to families with transportation issues who can't get to the church.
Sarah Carrero coordinates the games — and participates, too. On this night, she led the children in the marshmallow game, then jumped into a raucous game of "silly soccer" with an American football.
Each week, 50 to 100 people come to help. On a recent Wednesday, Michelle Patton showed up with her children Ally, 14, and Eric, to pack the bags.
"I know there's a lot of people in need," Patton said. "We used to work at a food shelf. You wouldn't think in the suburbs there'd be so many. But there is. That's why I like the kids to see this."
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284
For more information on Reaching Up Ministries or the Summer Loaves program, go to www.reachingupministries.org or call 952-356-4879.