SNEEDVILLE, Tenn. -- Randy Hildebrant is breathless as he talks about the needs of Hancock County. The worry comes pouring out as he describes the economic crisis in one of Tennessee's poorest counties.
"This county is at a very big crossroads right now," says Hildebrant, youth ministry coordinator at Jubilee Project. "We've always needed help, but now we really need help."
As Hildebrant speaks, teenage boys carry mattresses and food out to a waiting van.
"These people need security, and I am petrified that we're not going to have enough to give when they come," says Hildebrant, a United Methodist Church and Community Worker.
Between now and Dec. 5, Hildebrant will lead an ecumenical effort to help the people of Hancock County through the annual Community Christmas Bazaar. Last year, 2,000 people lined up at the old high school gym in Sneedville for food, blankets, clothing, and other supplies.
This year, with unemployment at 18.4 percent and climbing to a projected 20 percent by January, as many as 3,000 may come out for Christmas aid, according to Hancock County Mayor Greg Marion.
"With 6,800 in total population, that's nearly half of our population seeking public assistance," Marion said.
That's why Hildebrant, on behalf of the Jubilee Project and with the mayor's support, is asking Holston churches to give money, nonperishable foods, and blankets to help the people in this rural area of Morristown District through the winter.
"We are in extreme crisis right now," says Marion, a lifetime member at First Sneedville United Methodist Church. "When you compound our agricultural and manufacturing losses with the national economy -- we've got three strikes against us, and we're out."
Hildebrant is work camp ministry coordinator as well as youth ministry director at Jubilee Project. The 19-year-old project pursues community development primarily through empowerment ministries -- "beyond direct services and handouts," says Steve Hodges, executive director.
For example, Jubilee Project helps small farmers join forces to sell produce to local schools and restaurants. Jubilee also empowers the community by providing a kitchen for local growers to process their goods into jams and salsas, and by offering classes on leadership and drug abuse.
On the basement floor of the modest, worn Jubilee building, Hildebrant also tries to empower his youth. On Monday, the youth receive free tutoring. On Wednesday, they come for Bible study. On Friday, they might have cooking or music lessons. Annual trips include college visits, and each of the 30 or so youth who attend Resurrection must first accumulate 30 hours of community service.
The Community Christmas Bazaar is more of a "handout," but a highly organized one, according to Hildebrant. The Jubilee youth are among the 200 volunteers who make it happen. The bazaar started in 2002 as an effort for 50 families selected by school teachers and has grown to a massive project involving several community organizations and a few churches.
Second Harvest will provide some food, and Emmanuel Baptist of Lebanon, Tenn., will provide clothing and other supplies. Panther Springs UMC of Morristown has committed to filling 1,500 bags with toiletries such as soap, shampoo, and hairbrushes, because food stamps cannot be used for those items, Hildebrant said.
In the past, other United Methodist churches have contributed to the Christmas outreach as well as to year-round efforts, but Hildebrant and Marion hope for wider participation this year, given the current crisis.
"In the last 10 years, our county has gone from 500 manufacturing jobs to less than 25," Marion said. "In 1997 we had 493 tobacco farmers. Now we have 37."
In July, Hancock County suffered a blow when Volunteer Fabricators, a Sneedville furniture plant, closed and eliminated 122 jobs. On Dec. 9, BAE Systems, a maker of military body armor, is scheduled to close in nearby Grainger County, forcing 204 layoffs.
In addition, 89 percent of school students receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Hancock County has been cited as the poorest county in the state and the seventh poorest county in the nation, Marion said.
Hildebrant and his assistant, Doris Burton, can tell story after story of how children -- whose families were already impoverished -- rely even more on Jubilee Project for food, school supplies, clothing, transportation, and even beds and linen.
"We have kids who sleep on couches, or who spend the whole weekend with nothing but a bag of potato chips to eat," Hildebrant said. "We've got to do what we can for them."
HOW TO HELP:
The Community Christmas Bazaar is most in need of:
* nonperishable foods
* new or used/clean blankets and other bed linen
* new or used/clean children's clothing
Call Randy Hildebrant at (423) 733-4195 or e-mail email@example.com. Write checks to "Jubilee Project" with "Christmas" on the memo line and mail to: Jubilee Project, P.O. Box 657, Sneedville, TN 37869. Or, make your check to your local church with "#661, Jubilee Project Christmas" on the memo line.