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Backpacks for Appalachia to deliver more than Christmas to hurting families


DULUTH — Last December in Hines, W.VA., Allegheny Baptist Associational Missionary Dennis Cherry witnessed a miracle of faith in the form of a backpack.

While distributing Christmas backpacks to children at Hines Baptist Church, Cherry had one stuffed backpack from Georgia Baptists that reportedly looked like a very pregnant woman. He thought that each Appalachian child had received his or her own backpack, yet that “pregnant” backpack remained.

There was one more child.

That child was wearing shorts and a t-shirt on a day when snow covered the ground. She asked for the last backpack.

“Here honey, you can have it,” Cherry said.

Soon the girl was in a corner squealing with delight. With the help of her mother, the child had pulled out a pink coat.

A weeping mother told Cherry that she had lost all faith in God. This year, she had no money for Christmas and nothing to give her daughter.

“I said, ‘God if you are real, here are some things I need for my daughter,’” the mother reported.

All of the clothes were her daughter’s size. And specifically, the mother had prayed for a pink coat.

“I have found faith again,” she said.

Appalachian Regional Ministries missionary Bill Barker said that stories like that emerged throughout the region last Christmas as Georgia Baptists delivered an estimated 4,400 backpacks through ministry centers, churches, directors of missions, church planters, and others. Like Barker, who is a North American Mission Board-appointed missionary, many of these ministries receive Cooperative Program support.

Barker is a native of West Virginia who has a heart like Mother Theresa, a voice like Adrian Rogers, and looks like Abraham Lincoln. Covering a territory that stretches from Georgia and Alabama into New York, Barker has served Appalachia for more than ten years with strong support from Georgia Baptists. Several years ago, churches in the South began sending Barker gift packages for children. He stored them in his garage, then delivered them throughout the region.

He won’t be able to do that on his own this year.

Georgia Baptist Convention President John Waters, pastor of First Baptist Church Statesboro, issued a Backpacks for Appalachia challenge for Georgia Baptists to assimilate and deliver 20,000 backpacks for Christmas with school supplies, hygiene items, clothes, food, and age-appropriate religious books and Bibles. Recipients will also receive a gospel tract with a response card that includes an invitation to take discipleship courses via correspondence.

Frank Nuckolls, GBC state missionary for associational missions, said that associations across Georgia are collecting the backpacks as are other regional locations (visit for a complete list). Churches can also bring their backpacks to the Georgia Baptist Convention, Nov. 11-12, at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula.

Nuckolls has related to ARM and Barker for about ten years. During that time, Georgia Baptists have annually mobilized up to 45 percent of ARM’s volunteers, according to Barker.

The Backpacks for Appalachia logistics are daunting, requiring partnership that starts with families who volunteer and includes NAMB, state conventions, and associations. Nuckolls recommends that families and churches wishing to participate should begin collecting the items now by following the recommendations at (click on the “Backpacks for Appalachia” link). Once collected, NAMB’s disaster relief trucks will deliver the backpacks throughout Appalachia.

Distributing 20,000 backpacks is not Barker’s greatest concern. He knows that the needs are pervasive.

“Poverty is worse today than when Lyndon Johnson launched his war on poverty,” Barker said of the former U.S. president’s 1964 legislation to address a national poverty rate that was then about 19 percent. Within 48 hours of learning about Georgia Baptists’ desire to collect and distribute 20,000 backpacks, Barker had requests for 27,000. The requests grew to 30,000. Barker has quit taking requests.

Overwhelming need consistently defines ministry in Appalachia, and many of the requests for help from Southern Baptist pastors and missionaries come to Barker.

Lonnie and Belinda Riley have ministered in Lynch, KY for more than ten years. Lonnie recently called Barker to say the schoolchildren there need the backpacks.

“I just got back from one of our local elementary schools that has more than 317 students,” Lonnie told Barker. “All of them are on free lunches. The school principal said he has kids coming to school with no shoes or school supplies. These kids don’t have any food to eat on the weekends. Help.”

The Backpacks for Appalachia won’t solve all of the poverty challenges there. But they will help bring hope.

And maybe a pink coat that’s just the right size for the right girl.


Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship in Suwanee. Share your individual or church collection photos on social media and tag it #2013GBC.