Friday, August 19, 2022

UP Ministry making a difference for at-risk youth

Carla Hilburn, Jennifer Lillis and Kelly Hawkins have a heart for underprivileged kids. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

In 2013, Argyle’s Jennifer Lillis and Lantana’s Kelly Hawkins worked on what they thought was a one-time school supply drive through Argyle United Methodist Church (AUMC). Their plan was to raise what they could, distribute the items and move on to some other worthy cause.

Trouble was, their efforts proved so successful, they ended up with such a large surplus of supplies and monetary donations they didn’t know what do with them.

“Because we were the ones in charge, we knew we had to figure out who else we could help,” Lillis said. “Through some of my other volunteer activities, I knew about (Denton’s) Borman Elementary, which is a Title 1 elementary school [large concentrations of low-income students]. I thought maybe they could use some extra supplies.

“This was a week before school started. So, Kelly and I took a drive up the road and asked to talk to the principal. We told him the situation and asked if they have a need and he said ‘you have no idea what an answered prayer this is.’”

The principal connected Lillis and Hawkins to the Communities in Schools of North Texas representative, who said she was worried they wouldn’t have enough items. So, the duo took about $2,000 in cash and bought some clothes at Old Navy and delivered them to the school, thinking their work was done.

Not so fast, said AUMC Pastor Chris Schoolcraft.

“He said ‘what else are you thinking about doing now that the school supply is over and you know the needs? This school needs help,’ ” Lillis said. “We both had jobs at the time and we said ‘no, we’re done with this project.’ He said ‘think about what else might come to your hearts.’

“Over the next few months Borman reached out a couple of times for things it needed and we were able to help. That’s when we realized the need was greater than just Borman. We talked to Communities in Schools to find out the scope of what they faced at the schools they served and a ministry was founded.”

They called it UP Ministry and within a year quit their jobs to help at-risk students year-round. Plus, it provided their own children a chance to see what serving others was like.

“We live in a very affluent area, so I think it’s good for kids to see everybody doesn’t look the same,” said Lillis, who parents sons Conor, 15, and Seth, 11, with husband Brian. “Family and friends get pulled-in to help.

“The rest of the world doesn’t look like we do, so I think it’s neat for them to see the diversity and understand not everyone gets to live the same way we live. It’s our job to support others in the community. We, as a community, need to come together to help all kids become successful.”

UP Ministry achieves its goal through several missions throughout the year, starting the first week of June with a summer camp at the church. Lillis hopes 60 students attend this year, all identified by Communities in Schools as those who can most benefit. Lillis said the camps help normally withdrawn students come out of their shells.

Next comes the summer snack packs, which provide non-perishable food items that kids and their families pick-up at the Denton Civic Center. Then there’s the school supply and clothing drive that concludes the week before school starts. That is followed by a fall clothing drive for heavier items and Christmas Angels, which includes both needs and wishes.

After the holidays is when UP Ministry conducts most of its annual fundraising, including a wine tasting event in February at Grapes to Wine. There’s also a small t-shirt fundraiser in March. The rest of the organization’s funding comes from donations from the community.

UP Ministry conducted these events as part of the church ministry, until last September when Lillis and Hawkins realized they could help more kids if they became a non-profit organization. That has allowed more businesses to donate and to add former youth director- and current Argyle resident– Carla Hilburn to the leadership team. She and Lillis handle marketing, while Hawkins handles finances.

As a non-profit, UP Ministry can engage with other churches, businesses and service organizations like the Young Men’s Service League, National Junior Honor Society, Girl Scout troops, CASA and the Denton Family Court. It utilizes high school and college students from various youth groups to lead the summer camps.

Lillis estimates UP Ministry is helping about 900 students in 55 area schools this school year, primarily from the Denton and Argyle school districts. They are assisted by about 100 volunteers.

“The great thing about the way we conduct the ministry is we like to connect with the families, so we’re able to see them multiple times a year and show them we’re here to support them,” she said.

UP Ministry provides special assistance throughout the year as needed, with the goal to be available when schools and churches have a need.

“Our heart is for the kids,” Lillis said. “If a school finds a student that needs shoes or needs clothing or a specific need, that’s our mission. Anything we can do to make a kid successful is our main goal.”

Lillis said UP Ministry accepts donations of both items and money throughout the year and is researching ways to secure grants from companies, like CoServ.

“Everyone is eager to help,” she said. “When you see the families and especially the kids’ faces when they pick up their backpack or the parents pick up their Christmas gifts, when you see or hear their appreciation it makes it all worthwhile.”

“The more we can get the community engaged, the more kids we can help. Any way the community can get involved is much appreciated.”

To learn more about UP Ministry, visit:

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