SOUTHAVEN, Miss.(LCR)—What started as one LifeWay store manager’s spark of an idea six years ago has grown into a chain-wide ministry. LifeWay Christian Store Manager Sherry Parnell, who worked for the company for more than 24 years until her retirement in 2011, started the Christmas Plush Donation program at the Southaven, Miss., store outside of Memphis. But call it her idea, and she is quick to say it was all God—that He spoke to her out of a crisis her family experienced.
In 2006, Parnell’s infant grandson, Will, was in the hospital during Christmas being treated for a serious illness. A year later, Parnell was thanking the Lord for Will’s health and being at home rather than in the hospital for Christmas. That’s when the Lord reminded her that other families were now experiencing what her family had been through.
Parnell shared her desire to do something for hospitalized children and their families with assistant manager Mary Gowen and other store employees. They decided to encourage their staff and customers to buy the store’s plush bear to give to children spending Christmas at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, where Will had been treated.
On Christmas Eve, Parnell and a few employees went to the hospital and personally delivered the bears to all the patients and families on every floor, totaling 167 bears.
The next year more than 200 plush animals were donated. Grandson Will, a healthy 1-year-old, joined the LifeWay Christian Store staff to deliver the toys. The ministry has grown every year since.
The Christmas Plush Donation has now expanded to all 160 LifeWay Christian Stores. Each store partners with a local ministry organization to provide for children in need of a special gift at Christmas.
Across the nation, customers can purchase the “Jesus Loves Me Plush Dog” at LifeWay Christian Stores for $5. The toys come in three different colors and have the words, “Jesus Loves Me,” sewn into their red hats. Those plush puppies will then be donated to local hospitals, Baptist Children’s Homes and other groups for children in need.
Customers may also participate via LifeWay.com by purchasing a Christmas plush puppy to be donated to the Front Porch Ministry in Nashville, Tenn., home to LifeWay’s headquarters.
“Expanding this program to the entire chain was an easy choice,” said Scott Chancey, marketing director for LifeWay Christian Stores. “Every year we’ve been amazed at the generosity and support of our customers.” More than 100 stores worked with nearly as many charities to provide more than 50,000 plush animals last year.
The Christmas Plush Donation has extended to other times throughout the year as store employees and customers alike suggest ministry opportunities to LifeWay.
Mark McMillan, manager of the LifeWay Christian Store in Tallahassee, Fla., said customers donated about 500 plush toys to the local police department that gives them to children at crime scenes, domestic violence calls and traffic stops.
The plush toys ride along in the patrol cars ready to be given out when a child is separated from parents during a domestic dispute.
“The police give the plush animals to those kids who at no fault of their own are in the middle of a tough situation. They want to provide a little comfort when the kids are scared or worried,” McMillan said.
“It’s a great ministry and honor for us to help with these kids through the plush campaign,” McMillan said.
The employees at the Southaven LifeWay store have watched this ministry’s outreach to customers grow daily. Opportunities to partner with churches, ministries and community organizations have “just snowballed,” Mary Gowen said. “We have been blown away by the generosity of our customers.”
“People driving by the Southaven store may see only a business, but its faithful customers and employees know it is truly a ministry,” said Mick Houston, LifeWay’s director of store operations. “Every day there are opportunities to share hope and encouragement to anyone who walks through the door.”
“I love the people. I love serving the Lord. This is my ministry. This is what I do,” Gowen said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than telling someone about Jesus or helping them find their first Bible.”
Parnell agrees, “There are so many needs and so many people ... who have never heard the gospel. And if you get a chance to plant a seed, then why not? We can easily miss opportunities, but if we’re attentive to them we can find ways to minister to people.”
Local store contact information is located online at LifeWay.com.
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