FORT GAINES — When Kenny Williams drives through Clay County and sees a child who is obviously growing up in poverty, his heart goes out to him or her.
They seem to be everywhere … walking down the side of a country road, interacting with friends in an empty playground after school, hanging out in a parking lot of a convenience store.
He senses their poverty, their lack of direction in life. That’s because he walked in their shoes growing up in the same environment. And, to be honest, needing a good dose of hope that there was more to life than what he was seeing.
“I was one of those children. I’ve been there and my heart goes out to them.
“I was raised by a single mom who was struggling to support five children. But by the grace of God my life took a different direction and I want to help them see that God’s plan is bigger than anything they can grasp if they will just give Him a chance,” he says.
That is why he and his wife, Melanie, are serving as Missions and Ministry Team Leaders for Bethel Association’s Backpacks of Hope campaign. The statewide outreach of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board is looking to collect 35,000 backpacks for impoverished children at next month’s annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
What is different is that this year’s emphasis has been expanded from just focusing on Appalachia to include children in two southwest Associations with some of Georgia’s highest childhood poverty rates. The theme has also been adjusted and is known as “Backpacks of Hope” to highlight both geographical areas.
Bethel Baptist Association in Edison and Summerhill Baptist Association in Dawson will be recipients of the additional backpacks, and that is how the Williams couple enter the picture.
Melanie was born in Fort Gaines and the couple now live in Cuthbert. They are familiar with the poverty brought on largely from lack of employment opportunities and the cycle of poverty which seems never to be broken.
The area has a lot of natural resources with plenty of deer hunting and fishing tournaments on Lake Walter F. George. George T. Bagby State Park brings tourists from throughout the area. But not many of the town’s 1,107 residents have a slice of the revenue generated from those venues.
“This is a very historic area but without industry our towns continue to decline,” Kenny Williams explains. “Cuthbert, for instance, used to have two stop lights but now doesn’t have any.”
More than half of children under 19 in Clay and Randolph Counties live in poverty
Curt Hampton, director of missions for Merritt and Summerhill Associations, is also familiar with the poverty in his neighboring cities. He was not surprised to find Summerhill and fellow Director of Missions James Holloway’s Bethel Association on the list to be included in this year’s outreach.
The two Associations cover nine counties where poverty is no stranger.
Terrell County in Summerhill is number 8 in Georgia in the number of children under the age of 19 living in poverty. That rate is about 48 percent, but Clay and Randolph counties in Bethel Association – where the Williams live – are even higher; they have nearly 54 percent.
“We have parents who are 6th, 7th, even 8th generations of living in poverty,” Kenny Williams notes. “There is a poverty mentality that is hard to overcome; if you feel impoverished from birth you are conditioned to accept that as a way of life. You don’t have any motivation to improve yourself, to get ahead, because there is no employment opportunity.
“With no hope in your own life, you have no hope to pass along to your children. The needs are just so great,” Melanie Williams says.
“Our Associations down here have always been big supporters of the Appalachia backpacks project and pour so much love into the backpacks every year and gladly send them off to other states.
“But we see the poverty around us every day and the desperate needs of these families. We just wish we could do something like that for desperate families here in South Georgia.”
Part of that unintentional disconnect could possibly be tied to a lack of awareness of just how deep poverty is in rural Georgia. That’s when the Mission Board decided to identify the 10 neediest counties, and it took them to the southern tier of the state. As a result of that study, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and its churches are stepping in to partner with the Williams and others.
“It is such a blessing to see Georgia Baptist churches walk alongside us this Christmas. There are poverty needs and spiritual needs and we are praying these backpacks will be the bridge between our churches and the families,” she says.
“All the children here, from the poorest to the somewhat affluent, need to hear about Jesus.
“We live in the Bible Belt and assume that everyone is going to church, that there is a grandmother who is seeing that the children grow up in Sunday School but that is not the case. The parents and grandparents themselves have little or no church background,” she adds.
“Jesus Christ can transform lives …”
“If we don’t leave the walls of the church and take the gospel to the children of this generation, they will grow up in Bethel Association and never know who Jesus is. We know that Jesus Christ can transform the lives of these children, and in turn the lives of their families and our communities,” she explains.
The couple do not need to go any further than their church to be confronted with childhood poverty.
Fort Gaines Baptist Church is across the street from government housing. The members see the children playing in the neighborhood and provide a meal during the week. In some cases it could be the only meal they have for the day if school is not in session.
The couple wishes they could do more. This Christmas that wish is being granted.
T.J. Bennett, member of the Executive Committee with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and pastor of Colomokee Baptist Church in the Bethel Baptist Association, is also praying for Backpacks of Hope to provide a means to sharing the Gospel with those in his area this Christmas season.”
Here are specific needs which still need to be filled prior to the Nov. 13-14 annual meeting at North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville:
- Clay County still needs 500 backpacks that are strictly of clear or mesh construction;
- Early County needs 1,531;
- Randolph County needs 940;
In addition to the two South Georgia associations, backpacks will be delivered to distribution sites – many through North American Mission Board ministries – in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York state.
Since 2012, Georgia Baptists have sent 124,969 backpacks filled with food, school supplies, hygiene items, toys, and Bibles to Appalachia. That number reached a crescendo last year, with 33,831 backpacks from Georgia Baptists making their way to the region.
For more information visit www.missiongeorgia.org and click on the “read more” link in the rotating banner. Churches are being encouraged to register their intentions of meeting specific needs as identified on the website. Collection sites are also listed, if backpacks cannot be delivered to the convention site in November.