Encouragement and a backpack

BOONEVILLE — The donated school supplies are great, but the donated time and encouragement is better, Owsley County Elementary Principal Stephen Gabbard said after his students received backpacks, notebooks, scissors and pencils Monday.

Knoxville-based Mission of Hope ministry distributes supplies annually to schools in economically distressed Appalachian counties — including 15 schools in Kentucky this year. Although the donations are continuing, Mission of Hope is shifting its focus from mere giveaways to trying to give students an appreciation for education, executive director Emmette Thompson said.

Volunteers applauded and high-fived students as they filed into the school gym Monday, and Thompson gave each class a pep talk, exhorting them to work hard and try their best during the school year.

"We want you to know that God loves you," Thompson said.

Owsley County, where about 90 percent of students come from homes with incomes that qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, is no stranger to phrases like "economic distress" and "cycle of poverty."

Other Kentucky schools served by the program are in Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Knott, Knox, Laurel, Leslie, Letcher, Owsley, Perry and Whitley counties.

Giveaways at the start of the school year and Christmas are commonplace, Gabbard said, but the best donations aren't just stuff.

"We do try our best to give our kids the opportunity" to succeed in school, Gabbard said.

Every parent, rich or poor, "wants better for their child," he said, but not every parent understands how to enable a child to do better.

Mission of Hope recently started a new scholarship program for students from the elementary schools it serves. Eleven Kentucky students will be the first in their families to go to college this fall because of the $2,500 scholarships awarded in May, Thompson said.

"Education is imperative to breaking the cycle of poverty," he said.

Cheering students on and giving them something to aspire to are more important, Thompson said, than a backpack full of supplies, although the backpacks do help.