By Kinnidy Thoreson, Staff Writer
Woodruff Middle School teacher Ashley Bennett stepped up her community service when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
When school was canceled and stay-at-home orders put into place back in March, Bennett said that staying home and not getting to see her students everyday “was one of the most uncomfortable things for [her] emotionally.”
Bennett’s local volunteer journey began after her first mission trip to Uganda. “I was 34 when I went on my first mission trip. No doubt God called me to teach, but that is when it hit me that if I can go to Africa and love people, then why am I not doing more when I’m at home?” said Bennett, now 37. After this reflection, Bennett started volunteering with the Woodruff Area Soup Kitchen and Helping Hands Ministries of Woodruff.
“She has been a Godsend,” said Sandi Turner, the director of Helping Hands in Woodruff. “A lot of our volunteers are older, and their families insisted on them staying home. We went from 10 or 12 volunteers a week to one.”
When the Woodruff Area Soup Kitchen started losing volunteers in April and May, Bennett and her family jumped in to help. “[The Bennetts] have been fearless through this whole thing, doing what needed to be done to help feed our community,” states Beth Grant, the director at the Woodruff Area Soup Kitchen and also a staff member of The Woodruff Times. “She and her family really stepped up when our volunteers could not.”
“They haven’t missed a beat,” adds Turner. “We’ve been so appreciative of them.”
Volunteering at the soup kitchen started as a summer project for Bennett and her family but has since developed into a monthly occurrence. Bennett said she and her husband, Chris, want to instill in their daughter and son that “there is always something you can do. There is always something you can give back, and of course our foundation of that is found in Christ.”
For this reason, she took her daughter, a rising sophomore at Woodruff High School, on the second and most recent trip to Uganda. Bennett says she wanted her daughter to experience the routine and power of daily service before she’s an adult, “so it’s a habit.” Additionally, Bennett and her husband sponsor a young Ugandan girl’s education.
Bennett and her husband are the disaster relief coordinators at their church, the Church at The Mill, through the Southern Baptist Convention. They take local and state mission trips towards disaster relief and organize missions through the mission board at their church. One of their favorites is Sidewalk Hope, a youth ministry which brings the gospel to inner city neighborhoods.
To someone on the outside, the amount of time Bennet and her family spend volunteering may seem extraordinary, but Bennett insists that it reflects their daily life as Christians. “This is the way we live. We live to serve because that’s what Christ did. Christ came to serve and if I’m a disciple of Him then my life has to reflect that daily.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Bennett also began sponsoring Maroon On A Mission, a service group, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an interdenominational sports ministry, at Woodruff Middle School. By sponsoring these organizations, she was able to coordinate service trips at local nonprofits, like the Woodruff Manor Nursing Home and the Woodruff Area Soup Kitchen, while also encouraging the students to donate to national and global efforts such as the Shriners Hospital and Operation Christmas Child.
Bennett, who just completed her 15th year teaching math at Woodruff Middle School, is a life-long resident of Green Pond and attended the Woodruff school system from kindergarten through graduation. “I’ve been blessed to have my education in Woodruff. I wanted to come back and be a part of that. I think that is unique.”
For the 2019-2020 school year, Bennett was the 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year for Woodruff Middle School. Furthermore, she has also been selected as one of the top five finalists for the South Carolina Teacher of the Year.
“It is a tremendous honor,” Bennett said, because she knows that it means her co-workers thought enough of her to nominate her. “I get to go every day to pour into kids, make a difference, work with amazing coworkers who do the same thing. I have found that my passion in life is people and helping them.”
While the S.C. Education Board would usually hold a gala to celebrate the honored educators, it could not this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Bennett said that the board still plans to hold a small event for the five finalists, though a date hasn’t been set yet but it is likely that the event will happen sometime this summer.
Whether it’s volunteering or teaching, Bennett says she tries to live daily on service. “I feel like God gives us opportunities every day to minister to people and love people. If we would focus on Him and our ability to love people, the world would be a better place.”
Although it took going to Africa to realize her passion for helping people, community service is based on her faith and the feeling that serving gives her. “We were just grateful for the opportunity to do something to help. It’s an opportunity for us. I’ve told people, ‘It’s almost selfish,’ because we get to see God work, see His hand, and be there to bless people.”
Helping Hands’ Turner said that Bennett and her family have “single-handedly saved” days of the week when they needed the most help. While other volunteers have slowly been able to resume work, Turner knows that if they ever had another volunteer issue, “she’d be right here.”
In all things, Bennett is adamant that people know her service is not her own and all that she does is done for the glory of God.
“The opportunity that serving gives me to show the love of Christ: that’s the crux of it…My ‘why’ is Jesus. I don’t always get to share that, but I hope it’s always seen.”
Photo Caption: Ashley Bennett volunteering at Helping Hands in Woodruff.
Photo Credit: Kinnidy Thoreson