By Marilyn Stewart, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS – It takes a lot to fill 5,000 backpacks. But collecting supplies, enlisting hundreds of volunteers, and arranging event details all in a month’s time, might take a miracle.
Kay Bennett, director of the Baptist Friendship House (BFH), led 165 volunteers, July 13, to fill 2,000 backpacks for school age children, 1,500 for the homeless, and 1,500 for survivors of human trafficking. With the BFH gym packed with people and supplies, the backpacks were filled in about two hours.
“It worked like clockwork,” Bennett said. “I could not have asked for it to work better. It’s just amazing to see what we can do when we work together.”
Some backpacks were distributed to the homeless that afternoon. Backpacks filled with school supplies were handed out the next day, July 14, at BFH’s annual Back-to-School Bash.
With 600 filled backpacks typical for the back-to-school event, Bennett said she wondered if she had lost her mind after accepting the North American Mission Board’s Send Relief offer of 5,000.
“I should have known God would provide,” Bennett chided herself after the successful event. “He’s always faithful.”
In assembly-line formation, volunteers from 16 Louisiana churches, 10 out-of-state churches, and representatives from 16 concerned citizens organizations and federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies added an item to the backpack before passing it down the line.
Bennett said that while supplies were specific to the need of the three targeted groups, a common link united them – abuse, or the potential for abuse.
“The homeless are vulnerable,” Bennett said. “But if a child is living in poverty, that makes them vulnerable, as well. To show up at school without a new backpack and school supplies, people may bully them.”
Churches and partnership organizations donated supplies according to lists posted and updated on social media. While each backpack meets a need, greater is the impact for the Gospel, Bennett explained.
“Giving someone something says you care,” Bennett said. “That opens the door for their lives to be changed; it opens the door to share Jesus with them.”
HELPING THOSE TRAFFICKED
Basic clothing items, travel size toiletries, and a blanket are important to someone who needs to move quickly, someone escaping human trafficking.
“When someone’s been trafficked, they have the clothes on their back,” Bennett explained. “Most of the time, they’ve been trafficked here from another state. Most of the time, they want to go back home. The backpack is something they can travel with.”
A tip from the National Human Trafficking Hotline sent Bennett out with backpacks to find two young women with learning disabilities who had been trafficked by the same abuser.
After helping the first victim return home, Bennett found the second young woman “traumatized, malnourished, and literally shaking.” Sexually trafficked, the woman told of being locked in a refrigerator unit and starved.
With the woman’s identification taken by her trafficker, travel by train or plane was impossible. Bennett and a helper drove 17 hours through the night to return the young woman to her mother’s waiting arms.
The backpack met the young women’s immediate needs and fulfilled the Send Relief mission of “sending help and sending hope,” Bennett explained.
“It builds trust when you have something to give to someone,” Bennett explained. “It also says, ‘I care about you.’”
Leanne McCallum, task force coordinator of the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, said “anyone can be a victim,” but children and adults dealing with homelessness, addiction, disabilities, poverty, and sexual abuse are particularly vulnerable.
“The Baptist Friendship House is so widely respected,” McCallum said in explaining that BFH is a valuable partner in the fight against trafficking. Churches are invaluable, as well, McCallum said.
“Congregations provide a safe place where people tell their stories,” McCallum said. “[Church members] can spot behavior that may indicate trafficking.”
GenSend missionary Amber Kern helped deliver backpacks to homeless residents under an overpass in downtown New Orleans. Kern said one man told her he had been on the street since Hurricane Katrina, 2005, when he lost his barbershop.
“We told him we were there to show him love,” Kern said. Though exhausted from the work of filling the backpacks, Kern added, “God still opened doors.”
Steve Turner, director of Next Generation Mobilization, noted that the event underscored the training GenSend missionaries receive to “live life on mission.”
“I love the partnerships Kay has established,” Turner said. “To have our students learn from her is priceless. What she has done here in a cooperative effort is marvelous.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Workers for the Back-to-School Bash brought the volunteer count to 256, Bennett said, including some women who had found new life in Christ while being served by BFH, and returned to help.
One family attended in grief.
Mourning her sister’s death the day before the block party, the woman brought her sister’s children to the block party and confided to Bennett that the food and fun had brought them needed relief. Bennett pledged her help and her prayers.
“I get to stay here in New Orleans,” Bennett said. “[The volunteers] have helped me build relationships simply using a backpack. That opens the door to share Jesus with others and for their lives to be changed. Seeing hurting people every day is hard, but when you see people’s lives change and when you see God work miracles in people’s lives, it’s so fulfilling.”