January 2023 marks Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham’s 50th anniversary. The youth mentoring organization first opened its doors in 1973. Its mission was simple–to match each child that entered the program one-to-one with an adult mentor, or “Big,” who could act as a positive role model to the “Little.”
At its inception, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham consisted of just a handful of staff, a very limited budget and a passion for serving the youth of Birmingham. Today, the agency has expanded to six counties (Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, Walker, Chilton and St. Clair) and serves over 700 children each year across six different programs. “The impact our program has on these children is so incredible to see,” said organization CEO Sue S. Johnson. “We’re not just serving these kids for a few years and then sending them on their way. Many of these Matches turn into lifelong friendships, and they all change lives for the better, both for the Big and the Little.” Johnson has served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham since 1999. Over the years, she has watched children blossom into versions of themselves that likely never would have been possible without the love and support of their Big.
“We see these kids come in, and a lot of them are being pressured to join gangs, or to do drugs at school, or to get in all sorts of other trouble,” Johnson said. “But then we match them, and it’s like a complete 180 once they start spending time with their Bigs. I’ve watched the Littles in our program go on to become doctors, serve in the military and do any number of other amazing things. Watching them succeed is why we do what we do.” Research supports the positive impact of mentors. A 1994 study by Public/Private Ventures found that after 18 months of spending time with their Bigs, Littles were: 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, 52% less likely to skip school and 33% less likely to engage in violence compared to children not enrolled in the program. The study also found that Littles were more confident of their performance in school and got along better with their families.
Johnson has seen the results of this study prove themselves time and time again during her tenure at the agency. “What we do matters,” she said. “When we match these kids and give them the support and encouragement they need to succeed, they’re capable of anything. They are our future, and I truly think we’re helping to brighten that future, one match at a time.” To learn more about how you can impact the lives of area youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham, visit www.bbbsbhm.org. †
Riverside Baptist Church Helena will be hosting a FREE Fall Harvest Party on October 30, 2022 from 4-6 pm. Everyone from the community is invited for dinner, inflatables, a hayride, LOTS of candy, a dunking booth, and more! Children are invited to wear (non-scary) costumes and participate in our annual costume parade.
See You at the Pole 2022 “Aflame,” the Annual Global Day of Student Prayer, is Wednesday, September 28. All around the globe, in every time zone, millions of students will meet at their school’s flagpole for a time of prayer for the 32nd Annual See You at the Pole (SYATP). SYATP is a student-initiated, student- organized and student-led event.
SYATP is about one simple thing – STUDENTS in PRAYER. Before school, tens of thousands of students locally meet together at their school’s flagpole in prayer for their friends, families, school, city, state and nation. This year’s SYATP emphasis is “Aflame,” taken from Romans 12:11-12 in the Bible.
First Priority will once again coordinate SYATP efforts for Greater Birmingham through:
Awareness – print, web, social media, TV and radio;
Students gathering at their school’s flagpole on the morning of September 28, to pray for their school, teachers, classmates, community and our nation; and
Community rallies, planned by local First Priority student volunteers and adults, that will be held on the evening of September 28.
See You at the Pole is a student-initiated, student-led movement that started in 1990. It originated with one youth group, meeting at night at several schools in the community during a weekend retreat. SYATP brings students to their school flagpoles to intercede for their leaders, schools and families, asking God to bring moral and spiritual awakening to their campuses and countries. First Priority estimates 25,000-30,000 students across the Greater-Birmingham Area will participate in SYATP this year. For more information, visit syatp.com. †
Cancer diagnoses are nothing to celebrate. As Daniel Walker puts it, “no cancer is good.” But when Walker found out the specific type of cancer his son had, he considered it good news. Daniel’s son Asher was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2016. Asher had turned 5 years old just two weeks prior, and according to Daniel, he had been a “normal, regularly active child” up to that point.
That changed in one weekend. The weather was freezing in central Alabama, and Asher was pale and seemed to have a cold. By Monday morning, his symptoms had worsened, so Daniel decided to keep him out of school. On the way to the bathroom that morning, Asher stumbled, fell on the floor and began vomiting. Daniel knew something was wrong, so he set up an appointment with Asher’s pediatrician. That doctor sent him to Children’s of Alabama, where after a series of tests, physicians determined that Asher had leukemia. Initial results suggested he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer that requires intensive chemotherapy treatments followed by months in the hospital recovering from each treatment cycle. He might even need a stem cell transplant–one of the most intensive types of leukemia treatments.
When Daniel found out, he went numb. “(My body and mind) almost went into like auto-pilot mode,” he said. “It’s like it compartmentalized any emotion that I was feeling because I knew I was the only one that he had to be able to deal with this. As Daniel was still processing the diagnosis, doctors at Children’s were doing more genetic tests on Asher’s leukemia cells. Two days later, they had more details. Asher had a specific subtype of AML called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Historically, it has been extremely difficult to treat. Patients with APL need aggressive treatments, such as cytotoxic chemotherapy. They typically become very sick from both the disease and its treatments, and less than half are cured. In the 1980s, only 25% of APL patients might be alive and free of leukemia five years later, according to Dr. Malcolm Smith of the National Cancer Institute.
But in January 2016, when Asher was diagnosed, Dr. Matthew Kutny, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Children’s of Alabama, was in the early stages of a clinical trial using a new APL treatment. It involved a regimen of arsenic trioxide and all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). If Asher joined the clinical trial, he could be treated for APL without needing chemotherapy. Asher would be exposed to far fewer toxins and spend less time in the hospital. One doctor told Daniel a diagnosis of APL was best news he could have hoped for. “It was a no-brainer,” Daniel said. He enrolled his son in the trial. Initially, it wasn’t easy. Daniel remembers nights during the first two weeks when Asher’s oxygen levels would fall, and doctors would come into Asher’s room with a portable X-ray machine to check him out. “That’s what was the scariest–the first two weeks in the hospital, the first two weeks of treatment,” Daniel said. “Because he wasn’t eating well. We were trying to figure out medication.”
But Kutny had warned Daniel to expect this, and eventually, Asher’s symptoms improved with the supportive care given by his medical team. Soon, Asher was able to leave the hospital and receive treatments in the outpatient clinic. He was even able to go to the grocery store with his dad on the way home from treatments and tag along while Daniel went to work, if needed. “That was really a very positive aspect of this treatment: Asher could still be a kid, and he didn’t have to worry about the struggles and the additional illnesses that come along with the more traditional chemotherapy treatment,” Daniel said. Asher’s treatment lasted almost nine months. Aside from trips to Children’s to be treated, his life was mostly normal, Daniel said. Eventually, he went into full remission. Now, he returns to the hospital only once a year just to get bloodwork. “You can say, ‘OK it’s bad, no matter which (type of leukemia) we had.’ But I’m going to be grateful that it’s this and not something else,” Daniel said. “Because with this, it’s much more manageable.”
Asher was one of 154 pediatric APL patients who participated in Kutny’s study, which was coordinated by the National Cancer Institute. Between 2015 and 2019, More than 80 institutions across the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) enrolled patients in the study. It found that the treatment of arsenic trioxide and ATRA without cytotoxic chemotherapy was just as effective as the traditional chemotherapy treatment while being far less challenging to the patient. It’s now the new standard of care for these patients. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Oncology in November. “We’re excited as a COG investigator to be in an era where we can offer patients a far more effective and less toxic approach to treating cancer,” Kutny said. “This is what we hope represents the future for many childhood cancers, that we can move away from the more toxic and intense treatments toward a more targeted approach that really attacks specifically the genetic changes that occurred in the cell that turned it into a cancer cell.”
Kutny hopes doctors will find ways to refine the treatment process even further in the future. Because the arsenic trioxide has to be administered intravenously, patients have to visit clinics to receive it. This happens daily during the induction phase of the treatment and five days a week during consolidation. This often leads to a lot of absences from school for patients like Asher, who according to Daniel, missed about half of kindergarten while being treated. Kutny says there are some encouraging early studies on converting the arsenic trioxide treatment to an oral form, which would prevent patients from missing school. That means the treatment that already has set a new standard of care still has room to get better. For more information, visit childrensal.org/cancer. †
The Sozo Children’s Choir kicked off its multi-state “Miracle Tour” in April with performances in Delaware and Maryland, where the choir opened the Youth for Christ dinner featuring Tim Tebow. In May, the ministry celebrated its 12th anniversary with a concert at the historic Lyric in Birmingham featuring upbeat praise music and a special acapella worship experience. “The show at The Lyric was exciting for all of us. Every choir tour just gets bigger and better,” said Cathy Head, chair of the Sozo board of directors. “These children have been practicing for over a year to prepare for this trip and to be able to celebrate this birthday with us in such an amazing venue was a real blessing. It’s bigger than we could have imagined when we first planned the tour last year.”
For the last year, the children have been rehearsing and performing in Uganda, Africa leading up to the American tour. Sozo Children, a Birmingham-based ministry, serving the needs of vulnerable children in Uganda, created the choir in 2016 and the current tour is the fourth time the choir has traveled to America and is the first time the choir has toured the states since being stranded in Ala. two years ago when the pandemic forced the children to shelter in place nearly 8000 miles from home. “The entire month has been a whirlwind of events for us,” said Suzanne Owens, CEO of Sozo Children. Following the performance at the historic Lyric Theater, Sozo hosted its Run For A Reason 5K through the streets of the Avondale community ending with a choir performance at Avondale Brewing.
The choir tour was originally planned for January through May but due to a series of delays in the process the tour will now last into early October. Although off to a late start, the choir has now performed in four states and to nearly 10,000 people and is busy booking dates in churches and schools wherever they are able. There is no set charge for performances, but most churches and schools take up an offering or make a donation to the ministry.
“Starting later than planned has turned into an opportunity for us,” said Owens. “Spreading the tour through the summer will allow the kids to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) with some of the local churches during the week.” The choir has been invited to The World Games and will sing The National Anthem at a Legion soccer game as well.
The choir serves as a mission trip for the children of Sozo, who audition to join the tour every other year. Owens said this choir is special because it is the first one where children from the local community in Uganda reached out to audition. In total, five children from the local community joined the choir, and Sozo, for the first time. “We’re excited to share this worship and learning experience with our kids and let them spend quality time with children here in Alabama,” said Owens. “Growing up here, we sometimes take things like Vacation Bible School for granted but it’s a real treat for our kids.”
A former youth pastor who moved into ministry from mortgage banking, Owens says she never imagined she’d be operating a children’s home in Africa, or anywhere else. “Two of my former youth had accepted a temporary assignment as missionaries in Uganda,” said Owens. “They were going there to help build a website for a church and play in a worship band, but they found a children’s home that had been practically abandoned.”
Owens said she felt like God was leading her to intervene but the idea of opening a home for the children was out of her comfort zone at the time. “I did a lot of arguing with God,” she said laughingly. “I felt like He was telling me ‘You’re going to open a children’s home and have missionaries’ and I was saying ‘no, I’m not.’”
Eventually, Owens and the mission team got permission to take in some of the children from the home. With some help from local leaders, they agreed and rented a house, hired a local staff, and initially took in 17 of the children. That’s when they decided on a name for the ministry. The name “Sozo” comes from Scripture. It is the Greek word that means “to rescue or save” and appears more than 100 times in the New Testament.
Today, Sozo Children has grown to provide housing, nutritional care, counseling, medical care, quality education and spiritual direction to more than 125 children. But the reach goes much farther. Sozo ministers to families in the local village where it works with a local pastor to host “kids club” twice a week—providing snacks, play time and devotionals for hundreds of children who sometimes walk miles just to attend. “Children come to Sozo from some really harsh circumstances,” she said. “Some of them have been abandoned, some have lost their parents. Some of them have been abused and some have been rescued from trafficking situations.”
In Uganda, like many other parts of the world where extreme poverty is everyday life, children are often dropped off at local police stations by desperate parents who can no longer provide for them. Social workers assist in finding homes for the children with relatives or children’s homes like Sozo. “We place a lot of emphasis on sustainability,” she said. “We want to equip them to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient—to learn skills that will benefit them throughout the rest of their lives long after they graduate from their time with us.”
“The purpose of mission work is not to go there to create little Americans, so we don’t impose our western culture on them. Instead, we go there to walk alongside them and experience God together,” said Owens, adding, “We want them to be amazing leaders for Uganda and we want them to be strong leaders for Christ in their communities wherever they go in life.”
Sozo also leads short-term mission teams to Uganda where participants can interact in the work of the ministry, deliver food packs, and learn about African culture. Despite limited access to travel since the start of the pandemic, Owens is optimistic about the future of international missions. “We’ve only had two mission teams travel to Uganda since the end of 2019, but we are planning a full calendar for next year and trusting God to guide the way,” she said. Individuals can sign up to join a Sozo mission team on the Sozo Children website. Many teams are organized by churches, small groups, or even groups of college students who want to take a meaningful trip for Spring Break or during summer or Christmas breaks.
Sozo Children is funded through child sponsorships and donations and also operates Sozo Trading Co., an upscale thrift store in the Avondale community. To learn more about Sozo Children, or to sign up for a mission trip, book the choir, or sponsor a child, visit www.sozochildren.org.
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Join Vestavia Hills Baptist Church after VBS on June 16th from 5-7 pm for a Family Fun Night complete with food trucks from all over the Birmingham area! Current line-up: Red Diamond Coffee & Tea Truck, Pazzo, Steel City Pops (more to be added!)
Join us at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church from 9 am – 12 pm each day for a Food Truck Party VBS at VHBC! We’re Giving Thanks for God’s Daily Bread. Rising 1st graders through Rising 6th grades welcome! Families are invited to stay after VBS each day for a lunch in the Fellowship Hall!
On April 30, 2022, in conjunction with St. Elias Lebanese Food Festival, the ‘9th Annual Cedar Run 5K & Cedar Shake Fun Run’ will take place. All proceeds from the run for three years will go to Just Keep Smiling. Consider signing up to participate, whether it is running or walking in the 5K or Fun Run, creating a team or securing a sponsorship with a wide range available. Invite your company to support the JKS mission. Details can be found at www.StEliasCedarRun.org.
Regardless whether running is for you, make plans to enjoy and support the St. Elias Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival on April 29-30. There are other opportunities for supporting Just Keep Smiling as well. Just Keep Smiling ‘Auction & Appetizers’ on Thursday, September 29 at Regions Field is a great night for a great cause. Visit www.justkeepsmiling.org for more on the 501(c)3 and these events.
First through Sixth Graders are encouraged to join us for this fun-filled day of activities, music, and lessons at First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove. It’s like a week-long VBS packed into one day! We’ll have live worship music and a special guest speaker for the large group times. Children will have small group activities throughout the day. Cost includes t-shirt, 2 meals, snacks, crafts and activities. Church groups and individuals are invited to come. Learn more and register here or call Dan Williams at 205-790-3768.
Doors Open: 9:00 a.m.
Session 1: 9:30 a.m.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.
Session 2: 12 p.m.
Afternoon Activities: 2 p.m.
Supper: 5:30 p.m.
Session 3: 6 p.m.
Conclusion: 8 p.m.
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