By BARBARA JOINES
After more than a year of providing relief and assistance to families in Sevier County who were adversely impacted by the 2016 Smoky Mountain wildfires, the Mountain Tough Recovery Team is making headway in returning their clients to normalcy, including new homes for nearly a dozen families in its partnership with the Appalachian Service Project.
Mountain Tough was formed by community leaders and local government from the ashes of the wildfires. It is a 501c3 organization that is funded primarily through Dolly Parton's My People Fund, grants, gifts and administrative support through the Sevier County cities and county.
More than 25 other agencies made significant contributions through disaster relief and client referrals. Mountain Tough implemented a three-pronged approach to relief, stabilization and recovery.
• An Individualized Case Management Program focuses on case management and financial assistance to primary homeowners and renters who were affected by the fires. The objective is to identify a primary goal for recovery and help to remove obstacles that stand between the family and their goal of recovery.
• The Home Rebuild Program strives to assist the homeowner in their rebuilding efforts. Resources include connecting eligible clients to programs whose primary purpose is to help homeowners rebuild. These include volunteer-driven home rebuild ministries, government programs and in some cases, MTRT can provide direct financial assistance to targeted rebuilding needs.
• The Property Site Cleanup Program assists homeowners with the process of cleanup, tree and debris removal to clear their property for construction and rebuild.
The accounting of the lives impacted is more than dollars and cents. The work Mountain Tough has been completing affects individuals and families, certainly, but it also affects the community as a whole. Financial stewardship is cornerstone to the organization but its mission is to restore quality of life to the residents affected by the fires. Of the more than 600 families or individuals who registered with Mountain Tough, assistance began with the most primary needs related to the fire. More than two-thirds are on the road to recovery or have been identified as "recovered."
• 627 cases have received case management services.
• Expensed funds to-date are categorized as: Site cleanup -- 25 percent; Housing -- 24 percent; Furniture & Household -- 20 percent; Construction -- 11 percent; Utilities -- 10 percent; Transportation -- 5 percent; Medical -- 4 percent; and Miscellaneous -- 1 percent.
• 49 sites completed with cleanup, trees and debris removal to advance for rebuilding.
• 42 clients are participating in rental assistance or subsidy programs.
• 11 new homes have been built with ASP.
The road to recovery is a unique journey for each family. What My People Fund did and what Mountain Tough is currently doing for our clients will matter forever.
Whether it is simple assistance like the replacement of a guitar or a chainsaw to allow a client to begin earning some extra money, providing a new computer for a student with professional aspirations, replacing furniture and household items that will make a home complete once again, replacing critical equipment for a disabled recipient or by enabling a significant life-changing event, moving a client from virtual homelessness to a stable, permanent home, Mountain Tough is changing lives and helping Sevier County recover.
Barbara Joines is the executive director of Mountain Tough.