SHAMOKIN - Volunteers at St. John's United Church of Christ have partnered with the state and federal governments to provide food and educational programs for local children.

The Child Care Food Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Education, is designed to provide free lunches to children on weekends where school districts have 25 percent or more of their student population receiving free or reduced lunches. In the Shamokin Area School District, 72 percent of

the students are in that category.

"It's the mission of the church to feed people like Jesus fed the five thousand. If we are not feeding them in both body and soul, then we're not being true to Jesus' mandate," the Rev. Bob Peiffer said Saturday at the first free lunch program of the school year at the church fellowship hall at 117 N. Eighth St.

Peiffer said any child from kindergarten to 12th grade in the district can participate in the program even if they are not economically disadvantaged.

The pastor said he's been told by teachers that many students will come to school hungry on Monday morning because they didn't have a meal over the weekend. This program is designed to prevent such hunger.

While the funds are provided by the government, the church provides the space, utilities, volunteers and scheduling of the educational program.

For the first program Saturday, Dave Searles, of Ashland, was invited to talk to the children about his fossil collection. As a scuba diving instructor for 25 years and amateur collector for 12 years, Searles has amassed thousands of fossilized remains of ancient sharks, marine mammals and other water creatures.

His goal Saturday was to spark the interest of the students so they would pursue more knowledge in any of the sciences.

"I see less interest in school these days (for science). If kids can get something tangible in their hands and something to relate to, they'll take more of an interest," he said.

No fossils brought to the church by Searles were less than 1.8 million years old.

Searles is most interested in the megalodon, a shark that lived between 28 to 1.5 million years ago during the Cenozoic Era. The ancient shark, which feasted on prehistoric whales, could grow up to 70 feet in length; the great white shark of today is only 26 feet long.

He explained that the remains of whales would fall to the sediment on the ocean floor with shark teeth and would be quickly covered up by sand, volcanic ash or clay, which would fossilize the bones.

Searles often finds these fossils while deep sea diving, but he also finds them on land. He explained the coastline was once 100 miles inland from where the ocean is now.

As part of his presentation, he allowed students to categorize boxes of shark teeth and match them up with the species they belong to, and he gave prizes to students who answered questions correctly.

Searles passed around a megalodon tooth, which is approximately the size of a human hand. He also passed around a fossilized deer antler, the fossilized inner ear bones from a prehistoric whale and fossilized whale ribs with shark tooth marks on it.

"What you're holding in your hand is history," he told the students.

Each student was given a shark tooth at the end of the presentation.

"I don't believe in locking it away. I want you to appreciate it all," he said.

Searles has also held similar presentations for state police, Boy Scouts and camp cadets.

Joellen Smith, of Ranshaw, said she appreciated the educational portion of the program and the fact that Searles shares his collection.

"You never know who the next person will be to find a new species," she said.

She and her daughter, Emily Smith, 8, who was sitting with the other students, enjoy these types of programs, she said.

Other educational programs planned in the coming months will relate to bike safety, fire safety, cider making and archeology. Next week, church member Geof Levan will teach the students about the history of stringed instruments.

The program will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday as long as school is in session.

For more information, call the church office at 648-6101 or email stjohn_ucc@verizon.net.