ALMA, Ark. (BP)—Carrie Jernigan took her kids shoe shopping when her daughter, Harper, brought a pair of shoes to her.
Harper had noticed a friend from school had shoes that were too tight and had holes, and she asked her mom if they could buy the shoes for him.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ but I looked down and I could tell they were small,” said Jernigan, an attorney in Fayetteville, Ark., and member of Kibler Baptist Church in nearby Alma. “I just jokingly said to the clerk, ‘Looks like I may have to buy out all the shoes.’”
The employee at the discount shoe store, which was going out of business, laughed and then asked, “Would you really consider doing that?”
A few days later, Jernigan had 1,500 pairs of shoes.
A viral social media post and a massive outreach effort
Jernigan told her pastor, Lee Denton, she had bought all the shoes, but she was going to give them away anonymously. She spent most of the summer trying to give the shoes away. However, the new school year was approaching, and she still had plenty of shoes left.
“When I found out Carrie had purchased the shoes back in the early summer, I had mentioned to her that we could make it a big event,” Denton said. “After she shared her initial Facebook post, it went viral within 24 hours, and we were scrambling to decide what, when, how and where.”
Jernigan’s social media post was asking for a location where she could set up all the shoes and give them away to the community. It later was updated with details of the River Valley Kickstart that would be held at the Alma Middle School gym—17 days after the Facebook post went live.
The viral post also got the attention of major national news outlets.
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“That first national news story let me talk about God and kept it in the article,” Jernigan said. “That’s when I knew that if MSN on their lead story is me and these shoes and they did not cut out me talking about God, God was going to do something big.”
Jernigan also was featured on the national talk show Strahan and Sara, where the hosts gifted her $30,000 worth of school supplies.
Loaves, fish and shoes
With national attention, Jernigan was able to raise more money for the back-to-school event and purchase more shoes and more school supplies. Local businesses and churches also chipped in, donating money to help kids get ready for school.
“The event could not have gone better,” Jernigan said. “Someone said that God was in every nook and cranny in that school, and that was so true. Where everything could have gone wrong, or a few bad things could have gone wrong, nothing did.”
Before the doors were even opened, 1,500 people were already waiting outside with the heat index at 114 degrees.
During the River Valley Kickstart, 150 volunteers from Kibler Baptist Church and 50 volunteers from the community gave away 1,200 backpacks, 2,300 pairs of shoes, 6,500 bottles of water, school supplies and thousands of dollars’ worth of gift cards to local fast-food restaurants. The event also featured free dental screenings, health screenings, physicals and haircuts.
City officials estimated about 5,000 people attended the event; the population of Alma is 5,748.
“There were so many people, I thought we were going to run out of shoes. I thought we wouldn’t have enough backpacks,” Jernigan said. “Everybody kept talking about Jesus with the (bread and) fish, and that’s exactly how it felt.”
God supplied the platform
According to Denton, this was the largest “missionary event” in the history of Alma.
“We normally give away 400 backpacks a year, but this year was altogether different,” he said. “God supplied the platform and absolutely showed out in the River Valley.”
Next year, Denton hopes to host the event again— but “with a little more than 17 days to plan” it.
“I think so many times in our community that our businesses are not working with our churches and our people. Everything is so individualized. We had almost every big church in town help, almost every business, the mayor, our police forces, almost all these elected officials,” Jernigan said.
“There is just one kingdom, and that’s what I think communities like ours have to get better at doing. I think the event is exactly what God wanted that day—that there was a showing of all these different types of organizations that can work together for him.”