Appalachian Outreach Ministry to supply 1,400 backpacks, winter coats to West Virginia's needy

Lisa Anderson leaned inside the truck full of backpacks, her Simply Southern shirt adorned with a simple phrase from Corinthians — “Let all that you do be done in love.”

So as she checked the backpack for the toys, supplies and personal items that would help make Christmas a little brighter for needy children in the poor areas of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, her shirt seemed particularly appropriate.

Anderson was among the 50 to 60 people who gathered Saturday at Cherry Point Baptist Church in Havelock as part of the Appalachian Outreach Ministry. This year, it involved 1,400 backpacks filled with puzzle books, games, toys and personal items as well as 650 winter coats for children in need in places like Hico, W.Va.

It’s a place Anderson knows well.

“I graduated from there and after we got married, we moved to North Carolina,” said Anderson, whose husband Danny is pastor at Pollocksville Baptist Church. “People helped me growing up, and I just feel like this is a way for me to give back to the community. They loved me enough to share Jesus with me, so that’s my goal — to go back and share Jesus with them.”

Cherry Point Baptist Church became involved in the ministry four years ago with a couple of dozen backpacks. Now the effort involves 14 churches from five area counties with one goal — to spread some joy at Christmas in one of the nation’s poorest areas.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful area, but when the economy tanked, it tanked there, too,” Anderson said. “A lot of people there had really good jobs associated with the coal mine, and when the economy went south, they lost their jobs.

“They’re great people. They really are. They’re very proud people, so it’s hard for them to accept our help, but at the same time, when we tell them how much we love them, they’re very, very grateful.”

Cathy Green poured over items spread on a long table, looking for that special item to add to a backpack — designated for a girl from 6 to 10 years old.

“This is sharing love and meeting needs,” said Green, who teaches a Girls in Action group at her church and has gone on missions in Brazil and Mexico. “It’s really exciting.”

The volunteers had different tasks, going about their business like jolly elves, knowing the reward would be the smiles on the faces of children during the Christmas season.

Boxes were pulled from a back room and marked with age designations. Volunteers loaded the backpacks, labeled them and then carried them to Gay Turner. The Cherry Point Baptist Church member was in charge of organizing the backpacks into their designated boxes.

Steve Epperson, pastor at Cherry Point Baptist Church, said he couldn’t thank all the volunteers and churches that support the effort enough. He pointed out that seniors at the Havelock Senior Center knit all year long to provide caps and scarves for the children.

“It’s an absolute miracle,” he said. “We don’t understand how this many people got involved. We thought when we started four years ago we’d be lucky if we got 20 backpacks, and now it’s well over 1,000.”

Volunteers on Saturday packed the backpacks and loaded them into boxes. On Dec. 6, they will load the boxes into two rental trucks, and on Dec. 7, drive them about seven hours to West Virginia for distribution.

“The first time I went up there, I was amazed. I thought, ‘are you kidding me,’” Epperson said. “But to see those little children, to see those families, to have a mother and a father with tears in their eyes thank us, meeting them and hearing their stories and sometimes praying with them, it’s amazing.

“Every person who goes on this trip, every single one of them, will tell you that we receive a lot more than we give.”

Before the volunteers began their work Saturday, they gathered in a circle. Marion Sykes of Cherry Point Baptist spoke to the group.

“I thank you,” he told them. “Seeing what has happened that last four years, if God wasn’t behind this, it wouldn’t happen.”

They joined hands, they prayed, and then they went about the task of giving up their Saturdays to help those in need — Anderson’s shirt speaking for the group.

“Let all that you do be done in love.”