Wrapping up the school year and heading into the summer season means backpacks are the last thing on most people’s minds — except maybe those ready for a hiking adventure.
And definitely those partnering with Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union to bring holiday cheer to poor families in the Mississippi River Delta.
Many residents of the area live in persistent poverty, said Pat Ingram, missions and ministry consultant for Alabama WMU. Half of them don’t earn enough to support their families — much less buy gifts for their children — and many can’t find jobs at all.
One in 4 children living in the Delta don’t know where their next meal will come from, Ingram added.
So when Alabama WMU leaders learned of the tremendous need in the area, they partnered with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions to adopt the region in 2016.
The Alabama team works with the Mississippi River Ministry — which is coordinated by Marshall and Janell Ingle — to connect Alabama churches with specific communities.
Filled with gifts
Distributed during the Christmas holiday, backpacks provide warm clothes, nonperishable food for children to eat while out of school, and small toys and gifts to enjoy.
Alabama churches fill the majority of Mississippi River Ministry requests and have given more than 46,000 backpacks in the past five years.
Nearly 9,000 of those were donated in 2020 during the pandemic.
Janell Ingle explained that because many residents work seasonally on the region’s farms, Christmas gifts are out of their financial reach.
“That’s where backpacks come in,” Marshall Ingle said. “Their eyes light up, and they’re proud of those little backpacks.”
One little girl shares in a video testimony how she likes “everything about my backpack because not too long ago, my mom told me we weren’t gonna be able to have anything for Christmas.”
A 16-year-old girl said her backpack was the first Christmas gift she had ever received.
But the backpacks represent more than gifts, the ministry leaders contend.
Distribution events organized to hand out the backpacks are sometimes the only opportunity some families have to hear the gospel.
The seeds are planted and that may be all that happens in that moment, but sometimes the volunteers know about a new life in Christ. The gospel may reach a person or family through the presentation, but sometimes it takes root from an item found in the backpack.
“There was a child that got a backpack, … a toddler,” Janell Ingle recalled. “And there was a little brochure in there, a little Christmas story about Jesus.
“Of course, the child couldn’t read, but mom could. So mom read it. And mom ended up getting saved.”
Participating in the distribution of the backpacks, along with the gathering and packing of them — takes the ministry partnership to a level most don’t want to miss, Ingle added.
Backpack partnerships allow groups to know where their packs will go and to learn about and pray for the needs of that specific area.
Seeing their faces
Missions teams get to see the joy and appreciation on the faces of children who receive the backpacks, she said, noting many get to share the love of Christ and gospel message with families who come to the outreach events.
Janet Estis, Pickens Baptist Association WMU director who organizes a backpack ministry in her area, said, “Partnering helps make the backpacks more personal and meaningful, especially for those able to go and help distribute.”
WMU’s Ingram said more than half the backpacks Alabamians donated in 2019 were handed out through direct partnerships, but many more partnerships are needed.
Though the backpacks are gifted at Christmas, gathering backpacks and items to fill them can be a year-round effort, she noted.
The process is simple. Churches, associational ministries or missions-minded groups of any type fill new backpacks with age-appropriate toys, clothing, hygiene items, nonperishable food, school supplies and Bibles before tagging them with the age/gender bands.
Someone from the group — or several members — deliver the backpacks to one of 13 regional sites during the general collection week, which is usually the last week of October.
The backpacks are then transported to distribution hubs where they are picked up by the ministries that will hold the outreach events to hand out the backpacks.
A similar effort focuses on the poverty-stricken areas of the Appalachian Mountains region in the eastern United States.
Partnerships are available for groups of all sizes in both regions, Ingram explained.
And while churches, associations and other groups collect the gift-filled backpacks, funds provided through the Myers-Mallory State Missions Offering help purchase and mail the age/gender identification bands and a copy of “The Christmas Story” for each backpack.