Backpack Program Key to Busting Poverty in Appalachia

Mission of Hope, a Christian ministry that serves the neediest families in Appalachia, embraces an ambitious mandate – reverse the cycle of poverty that has spanned generations in rural Kentucky and Tennessee.

MOH’s plan can be summarized in one word – education.

“We know that education is essential for the children of Appalachia,” said Emmette Thompson, MOH’s executive director. “Too many of them don’t even finish high school.

“We encourage children to get a high school degree and perhaps even a college education.”

MOH does more than simply encourage. At the start of each school year for the past 14 years, Mission of Hope and its small army of volunteers target school children in some of the nation’s poorest communities for its Back to School Backpack Program.

As part of the program, MOH has added a “Sixth Graders Pledge to Graduate High School.” Additionally, this school year marks the fourth installment of the Mission of Hope Scholars program, in which up to 12 seniors from school districts that MOH serves are awarded $2,500 scholarships and a laptop to attend college.

Currently, there are 33 active scholars in the program and the first scholar graduated in May.

But it all starts with the Back to School Backpack Program, now in its 15th year. MOH will travel this month to 27 schools – 15 of them in Kentucky – to help more than 10,000 kids start the school year with a backpack full of school supplies.

The backpacks include pencils, pens, crayons, folders, scissors, glue sticks and hygiene products.

At each school, a team of volunteers sets up a Back to School “store.” Each volunteer will take a child by the hand and help him or her fill up a backpack with school materials.

It’s a magical day for the children, whose smiling faces reflect their appreciation. It’s also a special day for the volunteers.

Shirley Plant, currently MOH’s operations manager, started as a volunteer 14 years ago and has participated in dozens of Back to School days.

“It’s a wonderful day for the children, one of the best days the kids have,” she said. “They’re so excited and always ask you, ‘Are you coming back?’

“You talk to them about their summer. Not all the stories are good ones, but they share with you.

“And you leave with such a wonderful, warm feeling. You get a smile out of these children and it makes it all worthwhile.”

This month, Lexington Family Magazine staff and Versailles Baptist Church volunteers will travel to Letcher Elementary School in the town of Blackey in southeastern Kentucky for a Back to School event.

Editor John Lynch previously participated in the MOH Christmas Campaign at a school in Owsley County and is eager to help again.

“Mission of Hope’s goal to support education by helping children start the school year right is an effort that anyone with a heart can appreciate,” he said.

“We hope that in our small way we can make a difference for these children.”

Mission of Hope collects supplies all year at its warehouse in Knoxville and relies on cash donations to cover the $100,000 cost of the program.

“Again as in past years, we have stepped out on faith that God will provide the resources we need,” Thompson said.

“For many students this is the only opportunity they ever get to ‘shop’ for their own supplies.

“We truly could not accomplish our programs without the dedication and compassionate support of our friends who help us spread the Hope.”