Backpacks for Appalachia expanding into two southwest Georgia associations


Backpacks of Hope will be the theme for this year's Christmas children's outreach. The ministry will be expanded from Appalachia to include Bethel and Summerhill associations in southwest Georgia.

It’s mid-July in Georgia and that means it’s time to start thinking about mid-December, Christmas, and Appalachia. Or perhaps mid-November, when Georgia Baptists collect tens of thousands of backpacks to distribute to needy children in the nation’s most poverty-stricken areas of the nation.

This year the highly successful ministry will be expanded to include children in two southwest associations in the Peach State with some of Georgia’s highest childhood poverty rates. The theme will be “Backpacks for Hope” to highlight both geographical areas.

Shiloh Baptist Church, a member of Bethel Association, averages bringing 200 backpacks to be distributed along with other donated items in the massive warehouse used by Cedar Ridge Ministries. LISA HAGLER/Special

Bethel Baptist Association in Edison and Summerhill Baptist Association in Dawson will be recipients of the additional backpacks.

Perhaps no one better than Lisa Hagler, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church in Clay County. She says it with a stronger conviction when describing her involvement as a volunteer.

"I just have a heart for children and want the blessing of sharing the gospel with them and their parents," she said. Last year members of the church drove to Williamsburg, KY to distribute about 200 backpacks through Cedar Ridge Ministries.

State missionary Frank Nuckolls, who oversees the annual outreach, said the Georgia Baptist Mission Board identified the top 10 counties with the highest rates of childhood poverty. Those results largely focused on the southern tier of counties.

And Hagler is already there on the frontline, serving as Backpacks of Hope coordinator for Quitman County. When that project is completed, she will be back on the road again to Kentucky with other members of her church, bringing Christmas joy and the gospel to Appalachia.

Over half of children under 19 Clay and Randolph counties live in poverty

Curt Hampton, director of missions for Merritt and Summerhill associations, was not surprised to find Summerhill and fellow Director of Missions James Holloway’s Bethel Association on the list. The two associations cover nine counties where poverty is no stranger, he says.

“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 are even higher; they have nearly 54 percent.

A Kentucky mother and her daughters await their backpacks that are being delivered by members of Shiloh Baptist Church. LISA HAGLER/Special

“We have been longtime supporters of the Appalachia ministry and have actually adopted a church in Williamsburg, KY where we take our backpacks. This year our own children will be very excited about being included,” he added.

This week that partnership with Mountain Ash Baptist Church, just across the Tennessee state line, saw Hampton and volunteers tying up loose ends on their late-July delivery of nearly 600 back-to-school backpacks to the church.

In south Georgia this week, Hampton also visited three schools to determine the local needs for Backpacks of Hope. In Webster County, Preston educators identified 300 children in need; Stewert County educators in Lumpkin requested 400 backpacks; and Terrell County educators in Dawson reported 1,200 backpacks would be needed.

1,900 backbacks requested in Merritt and Summerhill, 5,200 in Bethel

James Holloway

Neighboring Director of Missions James Holloway, who oversees the work in Bethel Association, says local school administrators are initially requesting 5,200 backpacks. They will be distributed among students in Baker, Clay, Calhoun, Early, Quitman, and Randolph counties.

“We have been discussing among our associational leadership what we could do to meet some of the poverty-related needs in our Association. We usually send about 400 backpacks to Appalachia and are very pleased to be on the receiving end of other Georgia Baptists statewide this year,” he noted.

“We appreciate the Georgia Baptist Mission Board partnering with us for this project that will reach all six of our counties at one time. Something on this scale has never happened before.”

Volunteers Kenny and Melanie Williams have been busy since early this year lining up distribution points so the Association will be prepared when the backpacks arrive. The Cuthbert couple are members of Fort Gaines Baptist Church near the Alabama state line.

The initial total for the two Associations, which will be updated when the school year begins in August, currently stands at 7,100.

Nuckolls, who works out of the Georgia Baptist Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth, said the church of which he is a member – Flat Creek in Fayetteville – has already committed to deliver 300 backpacks to Webster County. Rather than bringing them to the Georgia Baptist Convention annual meeting in Lawrenceville in November, the church will personally deliver the gifts to the children.

Children await the annual presentation of the Christmas Story as enacted by puppets from a local Baptist church in Williamsburg, KY. The evangelistic moment is a popular sharing of the true meaning of the season by some of the many churches who partner in the ministry. LISA HAGLER/Special

“We are hoping we will be able to share the gospel as well, which has been a very important part of this outreach since it began. We have delivered a total of 125,000 backpacks and have seen 4,671 professional of faith not only from children but their parents and grandparents.”

Last year Georgia Baptists donated a record 35,571 backpacks, surpassing 2015’s record collection by 1,337. Georgia Baptists have shattered each year’s goal since the initial 4,400 were collected in 2012.

That was the year when then-Georgia Baptist Convention President John Waters, pastor of First Baptist Church of Statesboro, issued the call and churches responded on relatively short notice.

This is the fifth year that big-hearted congregations of all sizes have responded to the call for the Christmas gifts for many children who otherwise would not have a Christmas. This year’s goal has been set at 35,000.

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.

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Backpacks for Appalachia, Backpacks of Hope, Frank Nuckolls