She curled her hands around her body, an attempt to stay warm while we “shopped.” That’s what people at the Distribution Center do, they shop. For paper products, socks, cans of food, and an opener with which to pierce through a can of peas. When you lose everything but the clothes on your back, finding a simple hand-held can opener is cause for celebration.
Camera’s aren’t allowed at the Distribution Center. Sevier County Tennessee, home of Dolly Parton and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is in a state of mourning, a state of rebuilding, a condition of relying upon every hand available to show up and help. Volunteers are needed, 150 every shift. The need is great and the “Volunteer State,” who historically is the first state to jump in when disaster strikes, needs you . . . now.
Volunteers are told to dress warmly: wear jackets and coats. These instructions are for the volunteer’s comfort because there is no heat in the distribution center. But yesterday I realized that the clothing policy is sometimes for those we meet. People like Kari (name changed), who doesn’t have a coat, whose teeth chatter as she determines what type of soup she’d like.
“My son’s got a cold,” I think I’ll take chicken noodle.
I clean cabins” she offers while handing me a single can.
I nod for her to take more than one. “Give me another,” I say with open hands, “there is plenty.”
I make a note to stop by the medical department and pick up over-the-counter cold medicines. People have donated raw honey, God Bless them. I pair that with tea, cough drops, and as much love as I can spare.
“If I could just get a coat I’d be good,” Kari says. I nod, we will get a coat, and cough drops, and cereal and crackers to go with that soup. Kari my darling, everything is going to get better.
“This is so nice, the people who are helping,” Kari says softly. “Do you think I could get a skirt for church?”
The way she asks, like permission is needed, pricks my heart. We are a proud people, giving to others willingly, yet becoming reluctant when we must rely on the generosity of others.
Kari slides out of my jacket and tries on a coat she likes. This coat, fuchsia in color, was donated by an unseen soul―an angel really—who had no idea their discarded item would bless the recipient. I write this post to introduce her to you. Your coat blessed Kari. She’s an incredible lady. She is thankful. You’d love her.
“It’s perfect.” I say.
She nods. “I really like it.”
I toss it into the buggy, along with the outfit for church and basic items every one of us takes for granted. “Let’s find a scarf to match your coat.”
We start digging through the bins of beautiful scarves. “The phone just kept ringing last week. Cancellation after cancellation,” Kari says more to herself than to me. “I used to be a realtor, but took a break after my son was killed in a car accident.”
Suddenly her tone changes. In the midst of the scarf bin Kari is excited. “But I made sixty dollars today . . . haven’t worked since the storm, but sixty dollars goes a long way.”
I want to squeeze her, want to pull the pain, the fear, the uncertainty from her. Kari was one of many who got in the middle of Mother Nature pitching a conniption. Mother Nature at her worst, and in a blink everything Kari owned was gone. Those who owned their homes, who were covered by insured, they will be fine. It is Kari who I worry about; it is Kari who we need to remember.
There isn’t a policy against hugging. Volunteers hug a lot at the Distribution Center. In between folding clothes and unloading pallets, we hug strangers. We hug each other. We are filled with hope because we are witnessing the best part of ourselves, the greatest part about America . . . compassion. Kari and hundreds more depend on you. They need you to hang coats, to stock shelves, to show up if only for a moment. So if you have an extra hug to give, or even if hugging is not your thing, please register through Volunteer East Tennessee. Show up at Cates Road. Lend your time. Lend a coat. Lend a hug.
Click this link to register with VolunteerEastTennessee.
A special THANKS to my Facebook friends who helped me raise money for Kari. Stay tuned for more postings about the wonderful people God places in my path while I volunteer at the Distribution Center.
Renea Winchester is a traditionally-published author, a gardener, and a giver of hugs.