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5,000 backpacks: New Orleans ministry impacting lives

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Earlier this summer, Kay Bennett received a phone call that left her with some exciting news.

Bennett is the executive director of Baptist Friendship House, a Send Relief ministry center in the heart of New Orleans. Each year, her organization hosts a back-to-school bash, in which they celebrate the beginning of a new school year and give backpacks filled with school supplies to about 600 children living in poverty.

But plans for this year’s back-to-school event suddenly multiplied when Bennett got a call from Send Relief, a ministry of the North American Mission Board, offering to donate 5,000 backpacks to the cause.

“I remember getting off the phone with [Send Relief] when I told them, ‘Yes, I can pack 5,000 backpacks,'” Bennett said in an interview with Facts & Trends. “And then I thought, ‘Oh no. I’ve lost my mind. I’ve got a month to do this.'”

Bennett was at first overwhelmed by the way the project had grown; it seemed like more than her organization could accomplish before the back-to-school bash scheduled for Saturday, July 14. But she didn’t need to worry, she soon learned, as she saw churches and other organizations donate time, money and resources to what they dubbed their “5,000 Backpacks Project.”

On July 13, Bennett and her staff were joined by 151 volunteers, who helped pack 5,000 backpacks. Two thousand of these were given to children at the back-to-school bash held the following day, while 1,500 were donated to homeless individuals and the remaining 1,500 were designated for survivors of human trafficking.

“They’re helping me to build relationships with folks, simply using a backpack,” Bennett said.

Why backpacks?

Backpacks can be both practical and powerful tools for ministry, according to Send Relief.

“The relational connection you make as you hand a backpack full of food to a hungry child or a bag filled with toiletries and essentials to an abused woman starting over can last a lifetime,” the Send Relief website says.

As such, Send Relief encourages ministries like Baptist Friendship House to give backpacks filled with supplies to the vulnerable members of their communities — whether they’re students, children in foster care, newly arrived refugees, or the survivors of human trafficking.

It may seem like a simple act, but it’s one that can have an extraordinary impact, Bennett said.

“Part of what Send Relief, through the North American Mission Board, does is they meet a need, build a relationship, and change a life,” Bennett said. “And that’s exactly what backpacks do. They minister to the needs that people have.”

By giving someone a backpack filled with necessities, Bennett said, you’re actually giving them so much more.

“It helps you build trust because giving somebody something like that says, ‘I care about you,’ and that opens the door then for their lives to be changed, to share Jesus with them,” she said.

Coming together to meet a need

Shortly after partnering with Send Relief for the 5,000 Backpacks Project, Baptist Friendship House posted a list of specific items needed for the three types of backpacks on their Facebook page, along with a call for prayer and volunteers.

Bennett said they were overwhelmed by the response; Baptist Friendship House soon started receiving donations from churches in their community and across the country.

When it came time to pack and distribute the backpacks, a diverse group of volunteers was there to help, including law enforcement officers and human task force members, members of many different churches, and representatives from organizations like NAMB, Send Relief, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“We had a whole lot of people that came together to make the backpacking event happen, and to me, just seeing everybody work together shows what we can do when we all work together to make a difference in peoples’ lives,” Bennett said.

The backpacks — placed into the hands of children headed back into the classroom, people who’ve recently escaped human trafficking, and individuals living underneath overpasses — have already started to make a difference, Bennett said. And the backpacks left over from this weekend’s distribution initiatives will continue to make a difference, as they’re given out to people who need them in the days and weeks to come.

Bennett said the way everything came together — even when she was afraid it wouldn’t — shows God’s continued faithfulness.

“God has always provided here every time we’ve done something, and I should have known He would provide,” Bennett said. “The thing I’ve learned is to continue to trust in God because He’s always faithful.”

To learn more, visit sendrelief.org/backpacktools for resources and support.