The anniversary happened to fall on Thanksgiving day, when the Rev. Barbara Clark shared news that nine volunteer fire departments had received the last of donations from people in 35 states who sent money to Holston Conference to help wildfire survivors.
“Generosity is a great part of this story, but I’ve also been impacted by the amount of time recovery can take after a natural disaster,” said Clark, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “Our church is still helping people to cope with loss and grief.”
The Holston Conference Connectional Ministries office recently forwarded $150,000 to First Gatlinburg UMC to address needs in the community stemming from the wildfires beginning Nov. 28, 2016, and continuing through Dec. 9, 2016. The wildfires killed 14 people, hurt nearly 200 more, and burned 17,000 acres.
The $150,000 remains from the nearly $500,000 total that poured in through the mail and the Holston website from people as far away as Canada, said the Rev. Mike Sluder, director of connectional ministries. The donors trusted Holston Conference to distribute their gifts to help communities devastated by the fires.
“The connection worked in a splendid way through all that,” Sluder said. “We’ve been good stewards, and we’re still making good use of those donations.”
Soon after the fire, Appalachia Service Project received the largest portion of the donations -- $262,500 – to build 25 houses for low-income survivors who lost their homes, Sluder said.
Local United Methodist churches that helped families and organizations with housing, food and clothing also received grants in the days after the fire. Those churches included First Gatlinburg, First Sevierville, Espiritu Santo, First Pigeon Forge, and Seymour.
Three years later, First Gatlinburg, located closest to the fire damage, continues to work with people recovering from the devastation, Clark said. In April 2019, the congregation requested a $150,000 grant from the remaining wildfire donations to address five areas of need:
- Volunteer fire departments and emergency medical technicians agencies
- Appalachia Service Project, which continues to build homes for survivors
- Six families of First Gatlinburg UMC who are still rebuilding their homes
- Other families (referred by the City of Gatlinburg) who are still rebuilding
- Bread of Life, First Gatlinburg UMC’s weekly feeding ministry
Clark said it seemed appropriate to distribute donations to the fire departments around Thanksgiving.
“As you can imagine, the brave volunteers and employees of those agencies helped this community tremendously during every step of the process of responding to the tragedy,” she said.
“I was very appreciative for the privilege of delivering the checks on behalf of Holston Conference, and I found the recipients to be very grateful for the gifts. The distribution of funds allowed Holston to have a compassionate presence in the Sevier County community, and I look forward to building these new relationships,” Clark added.
Sluder said that he has retained $25,000 in the wildfire fund to assist First Pigeon Forge and First Sevierville with wildfire-related ministries carried out by those congregations.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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