If you live, work and play in Lakewood Ranch, you’ve probably seen a blue Grace Community Church tent set up somewhere.
Maybe it was at a movie night at Waterside Place or next to an inflatable at Music on Main, or maybe a member of the church handed you a bottle of cold water on a hot Sunday at the Farmers Market.
As a nonprofit, the church’s outreach program sponsors plenty of family-friendly activities, but it also supports fellow nonprofits in the area.
“We don't throw money around to just anything," Outreach Pastor Michael Cason said. "They all raise funds for the work that they’re doing. We have a pretty extensive process (to get a grant from Grace Community Church). It usually comes down to what falls in line with the vision and the mission of our church.”
On Nov. 17, the church donated $25,000 to Better Together, a nonprofit that’s on a mission to reduce the number of children who enter foster care.
“We connect parents to vetted volunteer parents who can temporarily care for their children to allow parents to get back on their feet or navigate a crisis,” Better Together Southwest Florida Partnership Manager Jessica Braemer said. “We have served over 6,000 children with our Better Families preventative program, and 98% have not required state intervention and have remained out of foster care.”
Cason said Better Together's work with foster families falls directly in line with what the goal of any local church should be — to reconcile families and see them through trying times.
Ellie Casebolt is a Grace Community Church member and host mom for Better Together. While waiting for the check presentation at the church, her daughters Emmaline, 9, and Ana Lise, 14, played with a 20-month-old baby girl that they were caring for temporarily. They’d tickle the baby’s belly, and she’d laugh so hard the ringlets in her hair bounced.
The three acted as sisters even though the 20-month-old had only been with them a week and will return to her mother within 90 days. The mother didn’t want the child’s name or photo printed in the newspaper, but she stays in regular contact with the Casebolts.
“We’re like family with them," Casebolt said. "We’re just trying to love them. It’s a way for our family to do ministry. It’s an incredible program because the kids don’t need to go into the system.”
As a church, Grace Community Church has no shortage of help for any of its programs and projects. Cason said an average weekend of church services sees about 3,500 people.
“It’s safe to say at least 50% of our church (members) serve in some capacity, and that might be in the kids’ ministry or the Music on Main event,” Cason said. “Our church is a very outward focused church. They love to serve. They love to get connected out in the community.”
The church offers a variety of options for volunteer work, and each volunteer is background checked. About four times a year, Grace holds project-based service days.
Over the summer, about 20 volunteers spruced up the landscaping for residents at Solve Maternity Homes in Bradenton and Selah Freedom in Sarasota. They planted flowers and put down mulch.
No two projects are the same because they’re based on current needs. In March, volunteers will be repainting The Resurrection House, a day center for the homeless in Sarasota. The church will cover the costs for that project, too.
“I love when we have people reach out as say, ‘I need X, Y and Z,’ and as a church, we get to step in and fill the need right where they’re at,” Cason said. “It’s always an amazing opportunity.”
One of the biggest outreach events the church holds is Christmas on Main, which is coming up on Dec. 23. Typically, the event draws about 4,000 residents to Lakewood Ranch Main Street. The church holds a candlelight services and brings inflatables for the kids, so it’s a service and a party.
“It’s a very community-driven type of outreach event,” Cason said. “That’s one I look forward to every single year.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.