The Mission of Hope just finished its largest Christmas assistance program, giving food, clothes, toys, books and Bibles to more than 17,500 children and their families in depressed rural areas of the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee.
"We partner with 27 schools in 13 counties of Tennessee and Kentucky to serve families in need," said June Plant, operations manager for the Christian charitable organization.
These schools have very high numbers of students on free and reduced lunch, she said. "We serve the poorest of the poor."
At Christmas and Easter, Mission of Hope volunteers set up a toy store in each school, and children pick two toys or gifts, a hygiene bag with shampoo, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a Bible, if they want one.
"The neediest children — selected by their schools — receive a clothing bag with a coat, shoes, socks, underwear, pants and tops," Plant said. Their families receive a large food box.
Most of the areas served by Mission of Hope were once booming coal mining towns that have gone bust.
It is hard for people who live outside the Appalachian area to imagine the poverty and living conditions that exist in many rural areas, Plant said.
Many Appalachian families have lost hope for a successful future because all they see around them is poverty, broken families, loss of jobs and depleted coal mines, she said.
Mission of Hope, founded in 1996, is a year-round ministry based in Knoxville that works in Kentucky, small parts of Virginia and West Virginia, as well as Tennessee.
The organization has a back-to-school program to give school supplies and hygiene items to youngsters. There is also a scholar program where one senior is selected from each county served by Mission of Hope to receive a $2,500 annual tuition scholarship for college for four years.
"We feel if we can give kids what they need to stay in school, get an education and graduate, that can help break the cycle of poverty," Plant said. In a program called Pledge to Graduate, sixth graders sign a pledge to graduate from high school.
Two teams from Central Kentucky work with Mission of Hope: Northeast Christian Church, and the Versailles Baptist Church and Lexington Family magazine.
Northeast has partnered with Owsley County Elementary for six years. The second group serves Letcher Elementary and Middle schools.
Mission of Hopes survives on donations. Plant said 91 cents of every dollar donated goes directly into programs that assist families in Appalachia.