Tis the Season
When the tourists leave for the winter, Sevier County's economy slows down.
That's when some families get in trouble.
"This time of year, we're extremely busy," said Dick Wellons, director of Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministry. The nonprofit agency provides food and help to the needy.
"People unfortunately get their hours cut at work, or even their job eliminated completely, because of the end of the season," said Wellons. "We try to assist them in any way we can."
The agency helps people who can't pay their bills. It supplies hot meals at local churches and runs a winter coat drive. It gives Christmas presents to children. It teaches clients financial planning and life skills, and it provides referrals to other agencies.
"We have a way of demonstrating the love of Christ through the love of our community," said Wellons last week.
Wellons spoke in his office behind Treasures of the Heart thrift store, 230 Court Ave. The agency operates another Treasures from the Heart in Seymour at 10537 Chapman Highway.
Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministry spends more than $350,000 per year providing vouchers for people who need help paying rent or utilities.
"We try to assist with a portion of a delinquent bill," said Wellons. "Folks in need call and make an appointment. We ask them to bring in documents. We don't ask a lot of questions, but we want to make sure there is a definite need. We ask about income, work habits, amount of rent."
The agency arranges for utilities and landlords to accept its vouchers, which it pays out monthly. During a 45-minute period on a recent weekday afternoon, Wellons took five phone calls about vouchers. For a given client, help of this kind is available about once a year.
In certain cases, the agency arranges for homeless people to live in motel rooms "for a short period of time," noted Wellons. Mainly, he said, "We're trying to keep people in a home, keep them from becoming homeless."
Year round, the ministry coordinates meal programs at churches including First Baptist and Smoky Mountain Christian in Sevierville, Henderson Chapel Baptist and Middle Creek United Methodist in Pigeon Forge, and Kodak United Methodist. Most churches serve a meal once a week.
"Meals are given to anyone who wants to partake," said Wellons. As many as 18,000 meals are served each year.
Food is donated by local restaurants. Volunteer Lou Ayers drives around to pick it up. "It's something that needs to be done," he said. "We go by Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse."
Each December, Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministry hosts Winter Coat Day. This year's was Saturday. "Folks can come pick out a coat for themselves and each of their family members," said Wellons.
On Friday, in preparation for Winter Coat Day, the Sevierville thrift store's warehouse and administrative areas were piled with coats. They were being separated and inspected by volunteers including Kim McCarter, social media coordinator for Tennessee State Bank.
The bank pays employees to work at organizations such as the rescue ministry. "This is something where we thought we could give back with service," said McCarter. "We know they need a lot of help," she added, referring to the ministry.
Another seasonal program is Adopt a Family, which is organized by board member Marsha Ayers. She also coordinates Winter Coat Day. The Adopt a Family program distributes toys and clothes to children. "We help families who fell through the cracks, who didn't sign up for Toys for Tots," she said. The agency begins taking names for Adopt a Family this week.
Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministry was founded in 2001. "A grassroots committee recognized a need that was not being met in the community," said Wellons. "There wasn't anyone on a regular basis who was meeting the needs of the homeless or less fortunate."
The ministry's funding sources include the thrift stores, which sell items donated by individuals and businesses. The agency solicits churches, civic groups and individuals, and it raises money at events such as an annual golf tournament, a 5K run and the Festival of Trees, which took place Nov. 20-24 at the Gatlinburg Convention Center. "We let folks know that this time of year, fall, winter, early spring, before the jobs start – that's when, financially, our needs are greatest."
Poverty in Sevier County isn't always visible. "Tourists and locals are enamored of the fact that there's wall to wall to traffic on the Parkway," Wellons said. "That makes them think everybody can take care of themselves. But when you get beyond the Parkway and into reality, you see that poverty is as prevalent here as it is in the lower-income areas of big cities."
Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministry spreads the gospel to clients who are interested in it. "We don't force anything," Wellons said. "Praise God to his glory, we're just the distribution point of his graciousness to us and the graciousness of the community that supports us."