'If a kid doesn’t have hope, he doesn’t have a chance'

Kevin Mays • Mar 21, 2020 at 6:00 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Phil Robbins vividly remembers the home of a student he visited during his second year as a coach and teacher in the late 1960s.

The student had been in an automobile accident and his mother asked Robbins to go see him.

Robbins went to the hospital, but the student had already been treated and discharged. So the coach went to his home to make sure he was all right.

When Robins got there, he saw something that changed his life forever.

Even some 40 years later, Robbins’ voice cracks as he describes the scene at the small house.

“I didn’t realize until I got to this young man’s house that a water faucet outside of the house was the only running water at the house,” the VHSL Hall of Fame coach recalled. “There was plastic that was hung on the porch that created sort of a separation. I didn’t realize until I went inside that was the only closet for that house.

“There were cardboard boxes that were used for the insulation. That’s all the insulation that house had,” Robbins said.

In one room three children slept in a full-size bed, another sibling slept in a half-bed and the oldest slept on a couch. The mother of the five children slept upright in a chair.

“That just left an impression on me,” said Robbins, struggling to speak the words.

Robbins, who has won seven state championships and one state runner-up trophy in football as well as two state titles and five state runner-up trophies for track and field, coached high school sports for 45 years, including 40 as a head football coach. But his 307 victories on the gridiron are far from the only memories from his career to have stuck with him.

“I know I have coached other kids that have been in similar situations,” Robbins said. “I just know there’s a lot of those that we forget about.

“I have kids that have tried to run away because their mother was arrested and going to jail and to prison and they knew they were going to be homeless.

“There’s just a lot of bad situations out there,” he said.


Those bad situations are one of the main reasons Robbins, who celebrated his 76th birthday Thursday, agreed two years ago to coordinate the Backpack Lunch Project for students of Union Primary School.

But he also does it because he wants to give back to the community that supported him and because of all the blessings he has had during his life, Robbins said.

“It’s about hope,” he said. “If a kid doesn’t have hope, he doesn’t have a chance.

“I never went without food. I never grew up in a house where I didn’t have my father and mother in the same house. I never grew up where I went hungry. I can’t tell you that I understand that situation. But I know it exists and that is what this program is about.”

The Backpack Project, a collective work of the Big Stone Gap Ministerial Association, provides food for students on the weekends.

Robbins — known across Virginia for his ability to organize events, particularly through his work with the Virginia High School Coaches Association and as chief of staff for the Virginia-Wise football program — said he agreed to coordinate the program “as long as I could do it on my terms.”

After agreeing to take on the project, Robbins almost immediately contacted Mary Beth Masters, who coordinates a similar program, Lunchbox 276, out of the Wise area.

Robbins said one of his first actions was to make the program’s food more nutritious. Instead of chips and other snacks, the backpacks given to students now include fruit, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, cereal, pasta and juice.

During fall break last year, the 110 students in the program got their regular backpack plus another one that included a turkey breast, instant potatoes, corn, green beans and some type of dessert.

Robbins said he’s had to solicit money for the program only once: to help cover the cost of the Thanksgiving meals.

“Other than that, I’ve not had to ask for anything. This program carries itself,” he said.

Some funding for the Backpack Project comes from area businesses and individuals who donate on a regular basis, Robbins said.

Area churches, primarily from the Big Stone Gap and Appalachia communities, contribute heavily with both food donations and financial assistance. The United Methodist Church’s Holston Conference provides a $3,000 grant annually to the program.


After schools closed through at least March 27 because of the coronavirus pandemic, this week the project provided a special backpack day for its recipients.

Robbins said 75 backpacks for students were picked up on Thursday. These backpacks included two loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, peanut butter, jelly, applesauce, cereal, hamburger buns and a 5-pound bag of potatoes.

Knowing extra funding would be needed to fund the special distribution, Robbins turned to social media to explain the need to “FEED THE BEAR CUBS,” as he said in his Facebook post.

Within 48 hours of the posting, Robbins said, contributions totaled about $4,300.

The majority of program contributions come from the Big Stone Gap and Appalachia communities that are feeder areas for Union Primary. But donations also have come from throughout Virginia as well as Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

“I’ve had former teammates contribute, former players of mine, coaches and former coaches in Virginia and East Tennessee. But most of it still comes from Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, as it should,” Robbins said.

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