SOUTHAVEN, Miss. (BP) -- What started as an idea sparked by a hospitalized child has grown into a "Jesus Loves Me Plush Dog" outreach through LifeWay Christian Stores' 160 locations nationwide.

Sherry Parnell started the Christmas Plush Donation at the LifeWay store she was managing in Southaven, Miss., 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 hospitalized during Christmas for a serious illness. A year later, Parnell was thanking the Lord for Will was healthy and wasn't in the hospital. That's when the Lord reminded her that other families were 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 167 bears to all the patients and families on every floor.

The next year more than 200 plush animals were donated. The ministry has grown every year since. Parnell retired in 2011 after more than 24 years with LifeWay Christian Stores.

The Christmas Plush Donation, now a plush puppy, has expanded to all LifeWay Christian Stores, with each location and a local ministry partnering to provide the special gifts for children in need.

Customers can purchase the Jesus Loves Me Plush Dog at LifeWay stores for $5. They come in three different colors, with the words, "Jesus Loves Me," sewn into their red hats. The plush puppies are then donated to local hospitals, Baptist Children's Homes and other groups for needy children.

"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. Customers also may participate via LifeWay.com by purchasing a Christmas plush puppy to be donated to the Front Porch Ministry for at-risk kids in Nashville, where LifeWay's headquarters are located.

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 to give 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 ... 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," he said.

The employees at the Southaven LifeWay store have watched the ministry's outreach 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. Whether through the Christmas Plush Donation program or other avenues of service, Houston noted, "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," Gowen said. "This is my ministry. ... There's nothing more satisfying than telling someone about Jesus or helping them find their first Bible."

Parnell agreed, "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.

Jon D. Wilke is media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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