APEX — To get what they need most at Christmas, some members at a pair of Apex churches go all the way to Aulander.
The tiny town in Bertie County is no one’s shopping mecca. Its only commerce, a floral shop and a funeral home, is in the business of dying, a grim metaphor for the town itself.
Hard times came to the once-healthy farming community in northeastern North Carolina a couple of decades ago and settled in. Today, Aulander sits in one of the poorest counties in the state, where unemployment is 12.7 percent and nearly a fourth of the residents live in poverty. Every student in the county’s schools qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
But Kay Coole looks forward to going there every year around this time.
“It’s an awesome trip to make,” said Coole, who made the two-hour journey Saturday with about 30 others from Peak and Apex United Methodist churches, and Christmas gifts for several hundred people.
Project Aulander started about 15 years ago with the Rev. Laura Early, a Durham native who was pastor of Aulander United Methodist Church in the 1980s. As happens in Methodism, she moved up and out, taking a job as director of Christian education for more than 50 churches in the Elizabeth City District.
That’s what she was doing when the church launched an initiative on children and poverty, and Early got involved. She had seen what was happening in Bertie County: drug use and crime were on the rise. The church she once pastored there had closed.
She wrote her bishop a letter.
“Can I go back to Aulander?’ ” she asked.
She returned there in 1997 as founding minister of All God’s Children United Methodist Church. Raising money from foundations and private donors, the church built the 12,000-square-foot Place of Possibilities, which concentrates in three areas of ministry: job training, health care and literacy.
About the same time Early was getting started at All God’s Children, she was invited to speak at a renewal service at Apex United Methodist.
“That service touched a lot of people’s hearts, and they asked about the new adventure in Aulander,” Early said. “And ever since, Apex and All God’s Children have been fast friends.”
Each summer, members of Apex United Methodist and Peak United Methodist go to Aulander to make repairs to people’s houses. They also take on special projects, such as bringing firewood to heat people’s homes, when needed.
For the longest time, Early said, the recipients of this generosity received it passively. But in recent years, they’ve begun to engage more with their visitors.
Instead of watching others do the work, “Now my people join them and they do it together. My people believe more in themselves now, they believe that they’re of value and they can make contributions.”
Volunteers in Apex and Aulander now have the Christmas project down to a science. Early identifies families in need, and gets information about how many members each family has, including the names, ages and clothing sizes of children and one gift request for each child. This year, there were 102 families – the most ever – including some from around Bertie County and from neighboring Hertford and Northampton counties, also economically distressed.
“I wasn’t sure this was the year to do this many families,” said Coole, who coordinates at the Apex end. “But we had them all adopted in two Sundays.”
Mostly, a family in one of the churches adopts a family on the list. But women’s circles in the churches and Sunday school classes also adopt.
Coole, who works at N.C. State University, has donors bring the gifts, each individually wrapped and tagged and bundled into a family package, to the church in the evenings during the week before delivery is scheduled in Aulander.
A church member lends a trailer, and Coole and her husband, Thor, decorate it with white Christmas lights. They light some logs in a fire pit, bring a pot of hot chocolate and a pan of cookies, and wait.
Tuesday night, sitting in a back corner of the parking lot at Peak United Methodist on North Salem Street, they looked from a distance like they might have been playing parts in a live nativity scene, with the trailer serving as the stable.
Nada MacKinney, her husband, Craig Winkelmann, and their son, Carrick, came by to drop off the gifts they bought for a mother and daughter. On their shopping list were a blanket and towels, and Carrick, 7, did his part to help choose.
“I guess he felt pretty much every blanket in Target trying to find the softest one,” MacKinney said. One after another, Carrick rubbed the blankets against his face until he found one that was warm and snuggly.
Being part of the project helped the Cary family refocus this Christmas, MacKinney said.
“I just thought it sounded like a great thing to get your mind off of buying stuff that people really don’t need, and think about getting stuff that people really do need,” she said.
June Colone, also of Cary, came by with bags of gifts as well, enough for two families. Her women’s circle at Peak helped purchase the presents.
Colone was out of town when Coole first got the list of family names, but Colone called and told Coole to save at least one for her.
“I love doing this,” Colone said. “I look forward to it every year. It just feels so good to help people when we have so much.”
When they got to Aulander, the volunteers went to the Place of Possibilities, where members from Early’s church met them and helped bring the gifts inside. As many of the families who could make it were there, to hear a message, share some pizza, and meet the Apex families. Afterward, the families receiving the gifts came in at 15-minute intervals to pick up their presents. It took most of the afternoon.
To the families who receive the gifts, “This is just an affirmation that there are good people in the world who care for others more than they care for themselves,” Early said. “I think it brings a lot of joy and comfort and hope to my people.”
Those are the very gifts the folks from Apex receive.