Don’t let Kids Connection’s simple façade deceive you of its greater purpose. After all, it resides in a nondescript building in a shopping center off of Green Springs Highway, and its only signifier is a sign above the door.
You can’t enter without first ringing the doorbell, but within seconds of doing so, the door is opened by a friendly face who says, “Welcome to Kids Connection. Please, come on in.”
In the lobby area, two small children are playing with a volunteer and a number of plastic cars; their mom is in the next room shopping. The children’s laughter is contagious as they dig through a bin of toys to find more. One child finds a toy fire truck, and runs to the man at the front desk. Although he appears busy with paperwork, he immediately stops what he is doing to watch as the child shows him the button that turns on the lights and sirens.
Though subtle, this interaction is a living example of the purpose of Kids Connection—to love and serve the children in our community.
As a ministry of the Dawson Family of Faith, Kids Connection is a by-appointment retail store that provides clothing, toys, books and more at no cost to children in Birmingham—from birth to high school—whose family could not otherwise afford it. For back-to-school season alone this year, they provided clothes and school supplies for770 children.
The store is open every Tuesday and Thursday—along with the second Saturday of each month—to families who have been referred either by a local organization, a neighbor or simply a friend. “We have qualifying standards,” says Ed Phillips, a Dawson member and director of Kids Connection. “But to put it simply, if the family qualifies for food stamps, they qualify to shop with us.”
Ed and his wife, Joy Phillips, have served with Kids Connection since the first interest meeting the church held more than five years ago. While today they are able to discuss the store’s process, layout and overall organization with confidence, both will admit that they began this journey having no retail experience to their name. “I shop, if you can call that experience,” Ed says with a laugh.
Thankfully, a team of people came together, and to this day, with the exception of one part-time employee, the entire operation is run by volunteers. “We have regular volunteers who come at different times, on different days and perform different tasks,” Ed says.
Volunteers are organized by teams. The retail team serve as personal shoppers, the inventory team processes donations and stocks the shelves, the spiritual support team talks and prays with shoppers, the record-keeping team checks shoppers in and keeps the computer system up-to-date, and the facilities team cleans the shop.
“After someone finishes shopping in the store, we make sure they sit down with one of our volunteers to talk about their spiritual needs before they leave,” Ed says. “We are a faith-based organization, and it’s important for us to recognize that people have needs that are more than physical. It’s not that we can solve them, but in many cases, people just want to talk.”
Mary Jackson, a regular volunteer who serves on the spiritual support team, says she is oftentimes blown away by all that can be revealed when she asks the simple question, “How can I pray for you?”
“The last time I was here, one young mother cried the whole time we talked,” Mary says. “She just had a lot going on in her life. We prayed together, and afterwards she said, ‘I would come just to have someone listen and pray with me, whether I could shop or not.’ I just thought, ‘Wow, this is really making a difference.’”
Mary says this is not always the case. Sometimes, a person prefers not to share. “In those instances, I do not push or pressure them in any way, but I just ask if I can pray for them,” she says.
As volunteers, Ed, Joy and Mary say they have found the saying, “You get more than you give,” to be true. “The thing that has touched me the most is that I would have never crossed the path of the people that come here,” Mary says. “My path simply would not have connected with theirs. But by coming here—just a few miles from Dawson—oh my, I have just been touched and deeply moved. My heart has been greatly enlarged by hearing their stories.”
“The impression that has lasted with me is the willingness of our community to serve others through God’s call,” Ed says. “The commitment they have to service is transgenerational. It flows from the body to the spirit, and it’s not age-dependent.”
On average, Kids Connection serves between 30 and 35 children each day, and the store is able to maintain its inventory through donations from the community. “We heavily rely on donations,” Ed says. “A lot of it comes from Dawson members, but word gets around the neighborhood. We get donations from people that you would never expect.”
Kids Connection collects donations on Mondays and Wednesdays. “We rely on donations for the toy section more than anything else,” Ed says.
Of course, some items are important to purchase new. The ministry purchases new underwear and socks as well as items that are in constant demand, like blue jeans, especially for boys. “At a certain age, boys are growing quick. It’s hard to keep those sizes on the shelves,” Ed says.
With continual support from Dawson, Kids Connection has never asked people specifically for money. “But people find out what we are doing, and they write us checks,” Joy says. “These donations have been so meaningful over time, allowing us to start new initiatives like purchasing new school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and more.”
They also now support foster families. “We feel that what these families are doing is already a ministry, and we want to do whatever we can to support and encourage them,” Joy says. “If you say, ‘We are fostering a child,’ we say, ‘Come in.’”
While Kids Connection has volunteers who serve regularly, the ministry is happy to work with groups to arrange special projects. “We would love to have more volunteers outside of Dawson. We want Kids Connection to truly become more a part of the community,” Joy says.
To learn more about how you can volunteer, visit dawsonchurch.org/kidsconnection or find them on Facebook at @KidsConnectionAL. Kids Connection is open for donations Mondays, Wednesdays and the second Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at 32 Green Springs Highway. To drop off items, drive to the back entrance of the store, and a volunteer will help unload your donations and give you a tax receipt.
The Learning Center: A Ministry for Adult Education
In the same shopping center as Kids Connection, the Dawson Family of Faith created a new initiative called The Learning Center, a ministry focused on adult education.
The Learning Center offers classes each week for adults starting at age 19 that cover the four GED subjects: math, language, science and social studies. Along with these courses, the center offers life skill classes like Faith & Finance, Keyboarding and Bible Studies.
Dawson not only provides financial support for the center, but the church also fully staffs the center with volunteers from its congregation.
“We had the benefit of working alongside M-POWER to establish The Learning Center because our volunteers were able to go to its Avondale location to observe classes and get an idea of what it will look like,” says Ryann Mitchell, program manager for The Learning Center. “Though our classes do not look the exact same, they very much reflect each other.”
To learn more, visit dawsonchurch.org/thelearningcenter.