Petal Task Force: 30 years of Caring for the children of Petal

By HASKEL BURNS,

In December 1989, two Petal families approached Demaris Lee and Jessie Rowell for help with providing their children with Christmas presents and food, as funds in the families were scarce that year.

“So Jessie and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, what should we do?” Lee said. “I figured, well, we need to go ask our friends for some money, and we’ll go buy Christmas for them.”

Little did Lee and Rowell know that one kind gesture would be the formation of the Petal Children’s Task Force, an organization that has grown from helping those two families to providing food and services to 458 families 30 years later. In celebration of that accomplishment, the task force will hold an open house from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at the organization’s office, 314 South George Street in Petal.

The come-and-go event will feature catering provided by Lakefront Grocery Catering and Coca-Cola, with special remarks at 12:15 p.m.

“It’s going to be finger foods, and we want everybody to come and have lunch,” said Lee, who serves as executive director of the task force. “We want people to come and go, because we don’t have the room to put down tables and things like that.

“And the food is coming in for Christmas, so we’re trying to get it set up so there will be room for people to come sit down and eat. We’re going to let our people who get (food) boxes come in and make them a plate too.”

After receiving their first donation - $500 from the Chamber of Commerce in 1990 – Lee and Rowell put out the word that they were available to help any families in need. Five years later, as the number of the organization’s clients continued to climb, officials decided to go through the process of becoming a nonprofit organization.

“At that time, we didn’t do a lot of (applicant) checking, because we didn’t have that many,” Lee said. “Now, we do have a lot of people coming, so we have to do a lot of background checks, and you have to put down your monthly income and everything.

“But at that time, we just tried to help everybody we could help.”

For a while, Lee and Rowell set up an “Angel Tree” of sorts, from which residents could pick the name of someone for whom to buy a Christmas president. With that help coming in for presents, the task force then began to focus more on putting together food baskets for their clients.

“That way, they’d have food and Christmas presents,” Lee said. “That kept going until three years ago. It kind of just got out of hand, because we’d have 350-400 kids, and some of them would be coming from the Salvation Army, and we’d have to keep double-checking who’s got what.

“So we decided to not do presents anymore, and just do food instead. We figured that if we helped with the food, the parents might have that extra money for Christmas presents.”

These days, the Petal Children’s Task Force provides food assistance to clients once every 30 days, and helps out with school uniforms that are available at Petal First Baptist Church. In addition to their Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes – which do not count as assistance for the month – the organization also helps with partial payments on utility bills once every six months.

The task force also gives out bags containing items like peanut butter and crackers to the homeless. This year, the organization will be assisted in that endeavor by members of Petal United Methodist Church, who have committed to put together 25 bags for the homeless for Christmas.

“I had no idea where God was leading us (when we started),” Lee said. “Every year it got bigger and bigger, and I didn’t know how we were going to keep doing it because we work on donations.

“But every year, God provides for us. So we have to give him credit for it, because without him, we couldn’t have done all this. I never dreamed I would see 458 families or more.”

Lee said it feels great to be able to celebrate 30 years with the community.

“Jessie Rowell is no longer with us, but if she was here, she would be so proud to see how we have gone from two families to 458,” Lee said. “I know it would bless her heart.

“So for me, I get to see it, and I can’t tell you every day that we wait on somebody, just how great it is to be able to serve someone, and they’re so appreciative to get something.”