Jeff Nene left the New Castle area nearly 50 years ago with aspirations to become a minister.
Eighteen years ago, the 1972 Laurel High graduate undertook a different kind of ministry — helping to provide food and hope to underprivileged people all over the world. His mission returned him to his roots Wednesday, when Convoy of Hope, a faith-based humanitarian organization teamed up with the Pittsburgh Steelers Trucks of Hope and a local ministry to bring that same food and hope to more than 1,500 residents of the New Castle area and beyond.
Nene, the national spokesman for Convoy of Hope, said Wednesday he was thrilled to be part of the cavalcade of food trucks that assembled in the parking lot of Shenango Elementary School, where Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, his wife, Ashley, and Steelers tight end Vance McDonald greeted people and helped with organizing and loading boxes into the hundreds of cars that streamed through.
Nene had driven the Convoy of Hope tractor-trailer from its headquarters Springfield, Missouri, laden with 35,000 pounds of food.
Ashley Roethlisberger, a 2004 Laurel graduate, had a big hand in bringing Convoy of Hope to New Castle, Nene pointed out.
"It's a partnership here," he said. Convoy joined with Pittsburgh Steelers Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger to create Trucks of Hope, and this is the third event the two groups have done together, with more events in the planning stages.
When Ashley Roethlisberger learned of the local efforts of Jubilee Ministries International's Nourishing Others Well-Being Project to distribute food during the COVID-19 crisis, she became instrumental in the organization of Wednesday's distribution that married all three organizations.
Ashley still has family in New Castle. Her siblings are teachers in the local school districts. So in a sense, it was a homecoming for the Sewickley resident.
"We have a family of teachers," she said. "We feel totally blessed to be able to help."
When COVID-19 hit, Convoy of Hope started supplying trucks of food to different areas, and its mission reaches across the world, she said, adding that they were able to share trucks and bring the effort to New Castle.
"God opened these doors, and it just all fell into place," Ashley said, adding that it's wonderful to have the resources to give back to her hometown.
Recipients of the distribution were given dry goods, baby products, hygiene products and other food items.
Nene, 66, he moved to Indiana two years after his high school graduation. There he attended a Bible college for four years. After serving as a youth pastor for several years, he transitioned into television that was funded by Christian productions and worked in sports and talk shows. He also did freelance work for the Billy Graham Organization.
In 1994, Nene moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he worked for the national Assemblies of God headquarters. That was where he met the founders of Convoy of Hope.
"Back then it was a tiny organization, founded in 1994," he said. Since then it has mushroomed into a worldwide giving organization.
Nene first volunteered for the organization for six or seven years through the Assemblies of God. In 2002, he joined the Convoy staff and now acts as its national spokesman, speaking at events and working on special projects for the president.
He and his wife, Lisa, whom he met in Springfield, were in New Castle together on Wednesday. Lisa has worked for Convoy of Hope for about 12 years, he said.
He, too, still has family in New Castle, including his sisters Joanne Nene and Diane Reiber, who also helped with the effort, and his sister, Jill Marburger, who lives near Harmony.
Looking back on his roots, Nene said, "I've got fond memories of Laurel High School, and I have maintained lifelong friendships from there.
"I love coming out to do these things," he said of the distributions.
And while he doesn't know if the hundreds of people who drive through to receive the food are all in need, that does not concern him, he said.
"We provide the product and hope that most people really are in need," Nene said. "It's not up to us to determine who needs it, it's our job to distribute it, and hopefully, the right people will be here."
Convoy of Hope distributes its food and other goods to 48 states and a total of 126 countries on every continent in the world except for Antarctica. The organization has 18 focus areas for its mission, which include Haiti, the Philippines, Central American countries, the Bahamas, Nepal, Europe in general, Sri Lanka, Africa — Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia; and the continent of Australia.
More information about Convoy of Hope and how to donate is available from its website at convoyofhope.com.