Jubilee Project reorganizes, finds new ways to help the poor in Hancock County

Jubilee Project reorganizes, finds new ways to help the poor in Hancock County

Jubilee Project in 2013: "We want to let people know what is going on in their backyard."

SNEEDVILLE, Tenn. – While many churches are raising money to dig wells in Africa, Jubilee Project just wants to bring clean water to poor families in Hancock County, Tenn.

In fact, “access to clean water” is one of the five basic needs Jubilee Project is tackling under a new set of core values and leadership. The other prioritized needs in this part of central Appalachia, hemmed in by the Clinch and Powell Mountains, are food security, shelter, health, self-worth and love.

“When you try to tell people from the outside that there are so many homes here without running water, they can’t grasp it,” says Heidi Taylor, Jubilee office manager. “That doesn’t happen in America.”

Twenty-two years after it was founded by Steve and Diantha Hodges, missionary volunteers now serving in South Sudan, Jubilee Project is still trying to make a difference in one of Tennessee’s poorest counties. Thirty-two percent of Hancock County residents live below the poverty level compared with 17 percent state-wide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hancock’s unemployment rate last year was 12.2 percent, compared to 8.7 percent across the state, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

"We want to let people know what is going on out their backyard,” says the Rev. Allen Karnes, Jubilee’s executive director since June 2012.

In the past year, Jubilee Project has helped 13 families get clean water into their homes by putting in infiltration systems, replacing pumps, or digging wells, Taylor said.

Taylor tears up when she remembers helping three little brothers who were removed from a dilapidated home by the county social services. When she gave the little boys clean clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, they were incredulous and grateful.  

“We take for granted the everyday luxuries – going into your bathroom and turning on the water, brushing your teeth, having clean underwear and socks,” she said. “We try not just to help the people that everybody helps, but the people who fall through the cracks.”


Three years ago, Jubilee Project had three full-time and five part-time employees. Today, the organization operates with three employees

Karnes, a United Methodist preacher, balances his director responsibilities with pastoring three churches. Taylor, the office manager, is part-time. A part-time AmeriCorps volunteer, Rhonda Utermoehlen, will soon be joined by two more part-time AmeriCorps workers.

“When the Hodges left [in 2010], people thought Jubilee Project had closed down,” said Lindy Turner, Jubilee board member.

See also: "More about Jubilee Project" ... local church involvement, reorganization details, how to help 

Jubilee did undergo reorganization with budget cuts and staff changes, including the resignation of long-time youth/work-camp director Randy Hildebrant in December 2010 and the unexpected death of Director Terry Schnell in March 2011.

The 2013 budget now stands at $134,000, compared to $349,000 in 2009. Some programs, such as the Clinch-Powell Community Kitchens, have been shut down.

However, several programs created under the Jubilee Project umbrella are now independent and successful, including Drug Coalition, Clinch Appalachian Artisans' Cooperative, Farm-to-School Project, and Sneedville/Hancock Chamber and Community Partners.

During the reorganization, Jubilee Project strengthened its ties with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, based in Alcoa, Tenn., and created the list of core values where they believed they could have the most impact.

“Jubilee is serving an area of tremendous need, and it has repositioned itself to serve those needs,” said Turner. “In such a poor community, a strong connection with the church is critical.”

With the help of churches, Jubilee still hands out large amounts of food and supplies. Last year, the organization distributed 11,498 pounds of food, 515 emergency food boxes, 1,000 Thanksgiving meals, 1,350 Christmas gifts, and 366 backpacks with school supplies.

Working with nearby Overhome Clothing Center, Jubilee served more than 4,100 people with free clothing in 2012. With a continued emphasis on building self-esteem for area teenagers, Jubilee fitted 350 with donated prom dresses or tuxedos last year.

Taylor tries to keep the “birthday closet” stocked with hoodies, Christian music CDs, and other favorites for her young neighbors, who meet at the Jubilee headquarters each Friday night for games, movies, and meals.


A newer program, Bread of Life, provides fresh hot meals to the homebound. Five days each week, Utermoehlen prepares and delivers meals to about 20 homes, driving 100 miles daily on rural, rough roads. “They’re not just the elderly but people with physical disabilities,” said Taylor.

Replacing the 17-year old van is on the needs list, says Taylor. When Jubilee rounded up eight youth for a Holston Conference spiritual retreat in Gatlinburg last month, a Morristown volunteer had to drive them because the van was deemed unsafe. (How to help.)

“The old gal ain’t what she used to be,” Taylor says of the van.

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Jubilee wants to increase the number of teams that come for summer work camps. “We have some regulars, and we want some new ones to come in and see what Appalachia is like, because it’s a whole different lifestyle here,” Taylor said.

Taylor is currently accepting applications from Hancock County residents requesting home repair, but work camp volunteers can also lead sports camps, vacation bible school, and cooking classes for the community. (How to help.)

Noticing the need for dental and eye care in the area, Karnes also aims to partner with medical groups who will help underserved residents. TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, does not provide dental care or routine eye care beyond age 21.

“It’s really sad,” says Taylor. “We see young people who have rotting teeth and they can’t afford to get them pulled out … They’re beautiful people with a great spirit, covering their mouth.” 

Send donations to: Jubilee Project, 197 N. Jockey Street, Sneedville, TN 37869. Advance #78135

See also:
* "Jubilee helps people help themselves" (The Call, 12/3/09)
* "Jubilee pleads for food, blankets, money at Christmas" (The Call, 10/30/09)      


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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More about Jubilee Project

* The biggest need is money. “Grants are hard to come by,” says the Rev. Allen Karnes, Jubilee Project director. “We are dependent on the donations we get from individuals and churches.” * Donations may be sent directly to: Jubilee Project, 197 N. ...