He Only Needed Dog Food: Stories from The Distribution Center

13 Dec

“Can you help this young man? “ The Pet Food Lady asks.

I call her the Pet Food Lady because she and her husband man the Pet Food Station at The Distribution Center. They are from Nashville, visiting on what I call a Vol-cation, a volunteering-vacation. The Pet Food Lady knows the rules: No Distribution Without An Approved Shopper. So upon her introduction I grab a buggy. Then Jack (name changed) and I set out shopping.

“I only came for dog food,” he insists.

“Where did you live before the fire?” I ask. A simple question I ask all #MountainTough folk paired with me.

“Ski Mountain,” came the reply as he diverted his gaze.

I knew about Ski Mountain, how the breath of hell blew down the mountain at 87 miles an hour devouring homes of the least of these. Local news reporters refer to the area as a “war zone.” Take a look for yourself.skimountain

“Really, I’m just here for my dog. Everything will work out for me,” Jack says.

But upon further questioning, I realize that Jack has already begun the process of falling through the cracks.

“I got me a job,” he states proudly. “Got fifty one hours on the next check. Only problem being, I don’t get paid till Friday.”

This is a common statement at the Distribution Center, a proud proclamation that: I’m a worker. I’m not on drugs. I’ve got an education. Folk visiting the Distribution Center have so much, and yet they have nothing.

“What about a coat?” I inquire. “Do you have a coat?”

He shakes his head.

We travel down the aisles I have memorized. We toss in the most popular items: soup, crackers, toilet paper, and chocolate. Thank God for whoever donated chocolate. Truly, you have no idea the comfort a single bar of chocolate brings during this time. There were also candy canes, and chocolate covered cherries but Jack wasn’t interested in any of those items. (I slipped them into a bag anyway. Tis the Christmas season).

“I’m worried about my dog. He really needs some food.”

Nodding I explain, “I’ve got your dog covered. We will throw the dog food in last, but first you’re picking out a coat. I can’t have you freezing to death.” I maneuver the buggy through the familiar aisles. Jack is polite. He utters “yes ma’am,” and “thank you ma’am” in a soft, delicate voice. Jack is in shock. I can see it in the way his eyes dart around the room, overwhelmed . . . the way he keeps saying, “I’ll be fine. I’m just worried about my dog.”

He needs a white polo shirt, “just one” to replace the one he was wearing. “I don’t want to take away from someone else who needs a shirt,” he says as we search for a white polo shirt, the type he is required to wear to work. We can’t find one. We settle for sweatshirts, and move to the shoe aisle where he bumps into his friend.

“Oh no! Not you too,” he says with a glance toward her bulging belly. I estimate she’s due in late February. Then Jack quickly adds, “You’ll be ok. We are all going to be ok. If I can just make it till payday I’ll be fine.”

They say their goodbyes and I toss a package of new socks into the buggy. (THANK YOU to whoever donated new socks for men). Then Jack’s positive demeanor began to crumble. His wiry frame grabs me and holds on tight as if my petite body can keep his 6 foot frame from blowing in the wind. I hear him sniffle.

“You sure are blessing me,” he says fiercely. “I’m going to be ok. I just know it.”

But Jack is not going to be ok. Jack is  in a heap of trouble. When hell rained down on Gatlinburg, when the fiery breath of Hades exhaled down Ski Mountain Road, it destroyed homes of the poorest first; two-family homes and residents who cannot scrape together enough money for first-and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit; those who cannot afford to pay the Administration Fee in order to have the power connected in their name. And without a name on the lease, or a power bill in their name it doesn’t matter that Jack has paid his half of the rent since he moved in. Jack will not be eligible for financial assistance, not according to the Dollywood Foundation’s website.

It doesn’t matter that Jack worked 51 hours last week. It doesn’t matter that Jack pays taxes. He has fallen into the crack my friends. And if we look at our lives we should see ourselves in the reflection of Jack’s eyes. How many renters can afford renter’s insurance? How many of us have an emergency stash of money to tide us over until payday when disaster hits?

Complicating the issue, his employer (whom I will not name) issues paychecks by way of prepaid cards, which are specifically designed for those who do not have a bank account. I know it is hard to understand that there are people these days who do not have a bank account, but my 24-year-old buddy does not have one. And of course this prepaid card deducts an Administrative Fee.

That leaves us here, at this blog post, with a bag of dog food, a pack of new socks, and an urgent need for housing. Jack must secure housing in Gatlinburg. He must secure something within walking distance of his employer. He can’t rely on the trolley who is held up by every slow-poke tourist stopping every 200 feet. The trolley service is primarily used by people enjoying the beauty of the Smokies, not workers who need to get to their jobs snappy quick.

His situation shines a light on the reality of living in a tourist town. In order for a tourist town to function efficiently, it must house the workers. Worker housing was already sparse and now what housing existed has burned to the ground. Thus far, no one is discussing rebuilding affordable worker housing. Land in Gatlinburg is far more valuable rented nightly to tourists than monthly to residents. But stating these facts do not help Jack. Only you and I can help Jack right now, at least until the rebuilding of worker housing (if it happens) begins.

I need suggestions. I need someone able to help me secure a room for a week at a hotel if it comes to that. I need someone who has a single room. Jack needs help. Dear Ones, two nights ago the temperature was 14 degrees. Jack doesn’t even own a car. The word “urgent” is an understatement.

Who can help me come up with a temporary solution for Jack?

And if you have white polo shirts, please send me a message. He’s a tall glass of water, size large. Edited 12/13/2016 Clothing obtained. Thank you.

Edited 12/13/2016 to add: For those who have emailed to ask “Does Dolly know?” please understand that the funds provided, while much needed and greatly appreciated, do NOT provide a roof over anyone’s head. We are in the rebuilding phase. You must understand the demographics of this area. You must understand that there are people who lived on top of the mountain in an apartment with two other friends and rode, or walked, to work; and you must also understand that at some point hotels will need to offer at least one or two rooms for employee housing until some type of re-building begins. We need homeowners to open their hearts and rent out a room. Housing is a long-term process and there are hundreds of people who need housing, now.

Why this fire matters to me? Read here.

Who was first to help feed the displaced? Jeromy York. Read here and support him.

12/19/2016 update:  Concerned about Worker Housing?

12/18/2016: Churches, I beg you. Please help! Read this update.


12/14/2016 1:21 pm.  Read this update on Jack.

Read about others I’ve met at the center here. And please follow my blog by typing your email into the “Follow” link.

12/16/2016: For those who haven’t subscribed to my blog, here is an update. Please read.  BLOG POST UPDATE

untitled1Like this story? Renea is donating the proceeds of her Christmas Story: A Hardscrabble Christmas  and In the Garden with Billy to the victims she meets at The Distribution Center. Download it here.

Note: I can NOT add a Paypal Code to this free blog site. I will contact you via email with instructions on how to donate if you desire. Please be patient as this little blog post is getting quite a bit of attention.

Renea Winchester is a traditionally-published author of three books. She is a Jesus lover, a gardener, and a giver of hugs.

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Posted by on December 13, 2016 in A Glimpse into My Life



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