When the chips are down for one of our neighbors, the residents of Williamsburg, Whitley County and Jellico can do a lot in just two or three days time.
Last week, residents and businesses in Jellico, Williamsburg and Whitley County collected enough items to fill a U-Haul truck Friday morning that was bound for the relief effort in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“It is always overwhelming the generosity of the people of Williamsburg and around in the county. It just shows the character of our people,” said Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison. “It’s horrible what is happening there.”
On Nov. 28, a long-time drought in Tennessee culminated with strong winds in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area that rapidly spread wildfires killing 14 people, injuring 145, and damaging or destroying over 1,700 structures.
Lindsey Bowlin, an employee at Jellico City Hall, is one of several volunteers leading the effort there, along with Melissa Chitwood, Betsy Blankenship and Tracy Douglas.
Bowlin noted that one truck full of supplies was sent to Gatlinburg last Wednesday from Jellico, and thanks to the efforts of volunteers in Williamsburg and Whitley County Friday’s truck was full or nearly full too.
“It was just horrible seeing all the pictures and stuff, the disaster. It is Christmas time. I just can’t imagine what they are going through,” Bowlin said.
Harrison said that he was contacted by Bowlin last Tuesday about taking up donations.
Harrison announced the effort during his weekly radio address last Wednesday morning on WEZJ. Gina Hamblin, an administrative assistant at Williamsburg City Hall, announced it on the city’s Facebook page. The effort grew from there.
“We have just been bombarded with stuff,” Harrison noted Thursday afternoon.
Whitley County EMS Director Kelly Harrison said that many of the employees at Whitley County EMS are trying to become official American Red Cross volunteers, but until they get all that paperwork completed, they wanted to do something to help.
Kelly Harrison, who is one of the mayor’s sisters, said workers at Whitley County EMS used their personal vehicles to go pick up donations that people had throughout the community, in addition to donating several items themselves.
The ambulance service also collected a variety of items on its own and from local residents, including four bags of dog food, four boxes full of canned food, clothes and jackets among other items brought to Williamsburg City Hall last week for the Gatlinburg relief effort.
Another item that was requested by people in Gatlinburg was Chapstick.
Kelly Harrison said that EMS workers were able to get two boxes of Chapstick from the Whitley County Fiscal Court, which had some on hand that they had gotten for a promotion.
Holli Lawson, General Manager of the Williamsburg Hampton Inn, noted that she could relate to how the people of Gatlinburg are feeling.
“I had a home burn when I was a child. We lost everything. I know how that is. It was around Christmas time. It was a devastating feeling,” Lawson noted.
Lawson and the nearly 20 employees at Hampton Inn in Williamsburg pitched in to do what they could.
Lawson said employees saw the list of the stuff that was needed and scrounged up everything that they could, including: about 200 pillows, canned food, sheets, clothing, towels, wash rags and soap among other items.
“God says love our neighbor and I think we should,” she noted. “I just felt like something was telling me that I needed to do this.”
About 11 a.m. Friday, a U-Haul truck driven by Jellico Fire Chief Mark Bell, arrived at Williamsburg City Hall to collect the items for delivery to Gatlinburg.
Among the items were diapers, Gatorade, bottled water, and even some handmade dolls and pillows that were donated by a local church.
Hamblin added that there was also $430 that was donated towards the cause. Volunteers used the money to go to Wal-Mart and purchase snow shovels, bleach and brooms.
Bell said that he planned to make a stop in Jellico on the way to Gatlinburg Friday to pick-up any last minute donations.
Able to sympathize
Part of the reason that local residents may have been so willing to give to this relief effort is the fact that Whitley County has gone through its own rash of wildfires recently.
A long-time drought resulted in an outdoor burning ban that went into effect on Nov. 1 in Whitley County. This still wasn’t enough to stop wildfires from burning over 3,000 acres of land in Whitley County alone during the month of November.
Roddy Harrison said he is thankful that Williamsburg isn’t in Gatlinburg’s shoes.
“We have been so dry and the wind has been terrible here too. We have really been lucky. We have had some damage on the outskirts and we have had some problems but we count our blessings,” Harrison said.
Kelly Harrison agreed that she thinks part of the reason why so many people in Whitley County have been willing to donate are our own wildfires and people realizing that could have been us.
“It has been a little touch and go,” she said. “I know the local firefighters have done everything they could do to try and help.”
While the division of forestry was doing much of the work, Kelly Harrison noted she spoke with chiefs at several fire departments, whose members were all prepared to pitch in at any time.
In addition, Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White Jr. also spent quite a bit of time over the last several weeks driving around checking on reports of various fires and people, whose homes might have been in danger, Kelly Harrison added.