Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology and Community Colleges aid relief efforts after wildfires, tornados, severe storms of Nov. 28-30

TCAT students and staff

After the wildfires struck the Gatlinburg area and tornadoes struck elsewhere last month, staff and students at several Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology and Tennessee's community colleges from across the state swung into action to help with relief efforts.

That work culminated Dec. 6 when a tractor-trailer rig from TCAT-Knoxville’s truck driving program pulled into a Red Cross donation center in Sevier County and unloaded 28,541 personal and household items for residents displaced by the fires. The delivery ranged from blankets and clothes to toiletries and toys, collected at 10 different TCAT campuses across the state.

Students and staff at five other Colleges of Applied Technology collected items for the relief effort and donated through local collection sites. Altogether, more than half of the 27 TCATs participated.

The wildfires swept into the Gatlinburg area on high winds Nov. 28, after burning for several days in isolated pockets of the adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fourteen people were killed, several more were injured and, according to a federal disaster declaration request, the fires damaged or destroyed more than 2,400 structures in Sevier County, estimated at around $500 million in losses.

A day after the wildfires struck Gatlinburg, five tornados and other severe weather hit Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties, killing two people in Polk and causing property damage across the region.

The news from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge spurred Angela Richardson, an instructor at TCAT-Harriman, to act.

Richardson asked if the all the TCATs in East Tennessee wanted to do something to help the victims. That question reached SkillsUSA national officer Sherrie Wilcox at TCAT-Knoxville, who has been a Red Cross volunteer for years. SkillsUSA is a national organization of career and technical education students and instructors in high school and college and industry representatives with more than 13,000 chapters, including chapters on TCAT campuses.

When Richardson sent the suggested donation list from Red Cross, Wilcox helped SkillsUSA students and instructors across the state mobilize for the collection effort. TCAT-Crossville members took their donations to TCAT-Harriman in a 27-foot cattle trailer, along with what donations from TCATs in Livingston and Hohenwald in Middle Tennessee. Other TCAT campuses participating included Chattanooga, Knoxville, McMinnville, Murfreesboro, Newbern and Ripley, near the Mississippi River in West Tennessee.

Chattanooga delivered its collections to Knoxville on a tractor-trailer from Chattanooga’s truck driving program. TCAT-Knoxville Director Dwight Murphy allowed his campus’s truck driving program to go to Harriman and pick up the donations delivered there. Once the truck was loaded, the items were delivered to the temporary Red Cross donation center in Kodak, Tenn.

Students from TCATs in Athens, Dickson, Elizabethton, Jacksboro and Morristown also collected items and donated through other agencies’ collection sites.

Tennessee’s community colleges were also heavily involved in relief efforts.

The faculty and staff at Walters State Community College, which has a branch campus in Sevierville attended by 1,200 students, began reacting to the wildfires not long after evacuation orders went out and shelters were opened, WSCC President Tony Miksa said.

With many area law enforcement, fire and emergency officials being Walters State alumni, the college was a natural staging ground for additional manpower. Public safety students and police cadets were deployed to assist with the firefighting effort.

Walters State’s Sevier County campus was closed Nov. 29 due to the fires but faculty began reaching out to students via email, text and phone calls. All students were safe but many had been impacted by the fires, including six students and one adjunct professor who lost their homes and belongings, Miksa said. Others were uprooted, with families in shelters and motels waiting for officials to allow them to return home.

“Faculty and staff members began to meet individually with students to see how the college could help. Students were sometimes able to come to campus. At other times, college personnel went to shelters or other off-campus sites,” Miksa said.

The college’s Center for Workforce Development staff worked with local offices of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to establish emergency locations in Sevier and Cocke counties to assist workers filing for emergency unemployment. Staff members worked long hours and through the weekends for two weeks and remain committed to assisting all those affected with job search needs.

The college sent temporary stalls from the Walters State Great Smoky Mountains Expo Center and helped set them up in Sevier County to assist with displaced animals.

The day the campus was closed, many students unaffected by the fire showed up on campus wanting to help. With their professors, culinary arts students developed a plan and delivered over 250 hot lunches to shelters and emergency workers that day. They continued to provide food for victims and first responders during the next week. Other students went to shelters at LeConte Center and Rocky Top Sports. There, they began to sort through donated goods and find what individuals needed. 

The fire struck shortly before finals were scheduled. Some Sevier County students were given “incompletes,” but others made it through the semester despite difficult circumstances. A class of 19 nurses were scheduled to take exams and graduate the following week. For these students, finals were moved back a few days, pushing them into the following week. Faculty members worked with students to make sure each had study materials and a study space. All 19 passed those very difficult final exams and were able to graduate with their class.

Academic departments also worked quietly to take care of students. For example, two divisions purchased uniforms and needed class-related materials for students who had lost theirs to fire. Four computer and information science professors and the dean of the Sevier County campus spent five days helping Dolly Parton’s “My People” fund develop the needed infrastructure to handle what would be more than $9 million in donations and an estimated 1,300 aid recipients. These professors have made a commitment to spend four days a month for the next six months assisting the organization with computer needs.

Roane State Community College’s emergency medical services programs and healthcare workforce courses also have trained hundreds of emergency responders throughout the region and many of those alumni were called into action. Some of their stories about the conflagration are here: http://www.roanestate.edu/?10800-News-Many-Roane-State-alumni-helped-fig...

Meanwhile, current EMS students at Roane State gathered donations for exhausted firefighters and other first-responders. http://www.roanestate.edu/?10778-News-Roane-State-emergency-services-stu... State Community College also accepted donations.

Cleveland State Community College’s southeast Tennessee service area was hard hit by the Nov. 29-30 storms. Campus leaders there quickly formed an emergency response team for supporting communities in need of help.

Faculty, staff, and students assisted with clearing trees and tornado debris and donated to the college foundation’s disaster relief fund, to be shared across affected counties. They also donated comfort kits to the Red Cross emergency centers in Athens and Bento, after student leaders assembled the kits.

The campus community also made material and financial donations directly to local charities and participated in an Athens Chamber of Commerce outreach to two specific families impacted by the tornados. At Cleveland State's Holiday Concert on Dec. 8 and Fall Commencement two days later, donations were collected from attendees and were distributed to storm victims in McMinn and Polk counties. The disaster relief committee gathered names of current CSCC students affected by the devastation and contact them to determine needs.

Finally, staff at the Tennessee Board of Regents system office in Nashville raised $929 in contributions and through a silent auction of baked goods, crafts and other items donated by employees. The contribution was sent to the Dollywood Foundation’s My People Fund on Thursday.

The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.