Appalachian students receive 30,000 school backpacks

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) -- Weeks after the holidays, backpacks filled with school supplies given by Southern Baptist churches continue to bless students in Appalachia.

Teams from Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM) traveled all along the East Coast in December to deliver Christmas backpacks to 30,461 students in all grade levels. After receiving a backpack, the students had the opportunity to listen to a Gospel presentation, resulting in 701 salvation decisions.

"All in all, this is a good approach to open doors to share the Gospel," said Bill Barker, North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary and ARM director.

The holiday activity builds good will that lasts throughout the year, Barker said, noting, "We have seen individuals with such hostility toward the church just melt because of the Christmas backpack ministry."

ARM, a NAMB ministry, started the backpack outreach in 2001 when an Atlanta-area church collected shoeboxes full of school supplies and hygiene items to deliver to a poverty-stricken community in West Virginia. In 2011 ARM moved from shoeboxes to backpacks, reaching more than 5,800 students at Christmas in West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.

After a slight decline in the number of backpacks in 2012, John Waters, then-president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, challenged the state's Baptists to support ARM's Christmas backpack ministry. The next year, ARM collected and distributed 23,808 backpacks, and the number grew again this past Christmas.

"We are seeing a lot of lives changed and Georgia Baptists are really leading the way," Barker said. "Churches from Alabama, California and other states have contacted us after seeing the success we have had with this ministry on the East Coast."

Churches from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky participated in this year's initiative. The response was so positive that 1,100 backpacks were shared with the Mississippi River Ministry for distribution through its partners. In 2014 more than 4,000 salvation decisions were recorded through the ministries of ARM and the Mississippi River Ministry.

But the backpack ministry doesn't happen just once a year. Teams are working year-round to provide for students and families in need. Each fall, ARM distributes backpacks filled with school supplies to students of all ages. Coats, shoes, clothing and food boxes also are available to students and their families at each distribution location.

ARM received approximately $67,000 in unsolicited funds in 2014 specifically for helping needy children in Appalachia.

Along with accepting donations, ARM welcomes volunteers to assist with the Christmas backpack ministry, partnering with different state conventions, local churches and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. But there is always a need for individuals to help assemble, collect, deliver and distribute backpacks to their various destinations.

"It's amazing to see how individuals come together to serve alongside this ministry," Barker said. "Entire congregations will take part in distributing backpacks, and church members who haven't shown up to a service in five years will come to help make this ministry happen."

While ARM is accustomed to receiving calls from churches about getting involved in the backpack ministry, 2014 was the first year schools called to request backpacks for students on their campuses.

"We were surprised but thrilled to see how public schools were welcoming us onto their campuses," Barker said. And other church groups have taken the backpack idea and created similar ministry opportunities.

"We have had some Methodist churches contact us about the backpacks. An Independent Baptist group took the idea and ran with it, going into areas that have no SBC work. This is just one way we have found to show others the love of Christ and to share His story. And as long as the Gospel is shared, in the end that's the ultimate goal."

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Kristen Camp writes for the North American Mission Board.
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