By Jill Penley
In the 1980s, John Cunningham could be found on the Johnson County High School hardwoods playing basketball as a crucial part of a championship team. Although his career took him away from Mountain City, he admits his heart has always remained in the East Tennessee mountains, and now he has returned and is already giving back in a big way.
“We are from a rural, economically disadvantaged community,” said Cunningham. “We are Longhorns. We come from Trade, Neva, Butler, Mountain City, Dry Run, Shady, Doe, Laurel, but we are ALL Longhorns.”
Cunningham recalls seeing a social media post circulating a few months back, urging residents to reach out if they needed help. “This hit home for me,” said Cunningham. “I worried for those who have never asked might not feel comfortable admitting need.”
Cunningham immediately texted his friend and former classmate, Kim Reece, to see if she could meet to discuss local resources and avenues to assist those in need.
“I remember sitting in the rain at Ralph Stout Park talking about food insecurity,” said Reece, who advises Hometown Service Coalition was born from that conversation. They called upon Jeff Pardue, Flo Bellamy, Jeffrey Lowe, and James Smith II for input as well, and all willingly agreed to volunteer their time and efforts to build a service to those who serve Johnson County.
“It is important for us to do this right,” said Cunningham, who doesn’t want to address the needs and then disappear. “We’re in this for the long term to help the kids and the families who choose to live here or who have grown up as Longhorns.”
The group of friends began meeting regularly, and word got out of their willingness to fill gaps of need and connect people with resources. “The response has been overwhelming,” said Reece. “We were receiving all kinds of messages from friends asking how they could help.”
A few short weeks after that impromptu meeting in the rain, a new Tennessee recognized nonprofit was organized, complete with 501(c)3 status under federal tax law. As their main focus was helping those in need, upon hearing of grant funding loss at the Mountain City/Johnson County, the community center, the group jumped into action to assist. They are people who grew up here, went separate professional ways and developed diverse talents, and have now returned with a wealth of knowledge and a willingness to serve.
“We are FOR Johnson County,” said Cunningham, and that includes the community center, the senior center, the food pantries, and those who are already here doing their best to make a difference in our communities. Upon conducting a needs assessment, it was discovered there are several organizations offering services. “The problem is that the need outpaces our local support capabilities,” said Cunningham. “We need the support and help of Johnson County.”
Anyone wishing to donate food items, cleaning supplies, etc. or volunteering to assist the community center is asked to contact Flo Bellamy or visit the Hometown Service Coalition Facebook page for contact information. Long term, Hometown Service Coalition needs the capital to meet grant funding requirements to affect the community’s systemic improvements. Monetary donations can be sent to PO Box 331, Mountain City, TN 37683. “Times are tough for everyone,” said Cunningham, “but incredibly tougher for some.”