Community service and professional accomplishments of the recipients of the seventh annual CORE Champion Awards were celebrated in a banquet Monday evening at the General Morgan Inn.
The awards are given annually by the Greeneville City Schools Education Foundation board of trustees to recognize individuals who have demonstrated dedication to human service by committing to a cause, optimizing resources, re-investing in the community and equipping others for success.
Jeff Taylor, chair of the Foundation’s board, thanked those in attendance for their support of education and for helping recognize this year’s award winners.
Champions for 2019 recognized during the dinner included Distinguished Alumni Award honoree, Dawana Gudger-Richardson (Greeneville High School class of 1983); Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipient Dr. Justin Woolsey (GHS, 1999); Distinguished Service Award honoree Carla Bewley (GHS, 1971), and Outstanding Patronage Award recipients Mike and Gwen Roberts.
Gudger-Richardson is a classically trained singer who has performed as part of the national Broadway musical tour of “The Civil War” featuring BeBe Winans, John Schneider and Larry Gatlin and toured globally with The Harlem Gospel Singers. She met her husband, Roy, while on tour with The Harlem Gospel Singers, and the couple has twins.
Her professional career has included roles in a variety of musicals. She performed twice at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II and has appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster Abbey and the Apollo Theatre. Gudger-Richardson has also recorded or sung with artists of all genres, including Paula Anka, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Dionne Warwick, Los Del Rio, Kirk Franklin, Marcus Cole, Sarah Dash and Bebe Winans.
“Thank you so much,” she said as she accepted the award. “I am rarely at a loss of words, but it is so overwhelming to be chosen for this award. I think of all the deserving alumni who came ahead of me and who I adored and considered my heroes.”
Among those she recalled were Walter Hall, Jessie Lee Martin and James W. Story, who was the first African-American drum major at Greeneville Middle School, GHS and Tennessee Tech.
As a seventh-grader, Gudger-Richardson said students in a play production course at GHS went to Greeneville Middle School to perform. “I was just in awe, and I decided that was what I wanted to do.”
Her third-grade teacher, Jackie Lane, encouraged her to sing, giving her a song to learn, which she later sang to her classmates. She also recognized her voice teachers, James Winfree and Dr. Ruth Thomas, for encouraging her.
Music was part of her family, and her mother encouraged her to learn music properly, she said, expressing her appreciation for her family’s support.
Dr. Justin Woolsey, the Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipient, has served as chief advisor for the development of small animal practice in Ulaanbaater, Mongolia, through Christian Veterinary Mission since May 2016. From 2007-2016, he served as an associate veterinarian/technology manager at the Greene County Veterinary Medical Center.
“I am amazed and humbled to be selected for this award,” Woolsey said, thanking his family and their support that has allowed him to accomplish what he has thus far. “I don’t deserve this honor. I haven’t done anything great … I am just a veterinarian who takes care of animals.”
Where he is now taking care of animals is probably the most interesting thing about him, Woolsey said, and his experiences have taught him that, while there are cultural differences between America and Mongolia, people from both places share common values and desires.
In thinking about what the CORE symbolizes, Woolsey said he thought of a co-worker who exemplifies committing to a cause, optimizing resources, re-investing in the community and equipping others for success. This veterinarian could go into practice for himself and make a good living, Woolsey said, but instead had committed himself to training other veterinarians at the school and helping others.
“He is definitely living the Biblical principal of loving others more than yourself,” he said.
Bewley, a Greene County native who has been active in numerous local community organizations, was honored with the Distinguished Service Award.
“An amazing number of individuals in Greene County give 110% of themselves every day,” she said as she accepted the award. “To be singled out from them for this award is bewildering.”
In her volunteer efforts, Bewley said she never had to do anything alone as she had been helped and supported by her family and friends. “The giving spirit and big heart of my husband has inspired and allowed me to engage and participate in the community,” she said.
After she thanked her family, Bewley said she also wanted to thank educators for their support and encouragement that can make a difference in students’ lives. “I was blessed to have been brought up in a loving, supportive family,” she said. “And then I went to EastView (Elementary School) and found that it was a loving and supportive place.”
She recalled that as she finished fifth grade, teacher Lamar Johnson wrote a note of encouragement on her report card. “Those words stayed with me and continue to stay with me,” she said. In the note, the teacher thanked Bewley for being a good pupil and encouraged her to keep up her good attitude.
In introducing Bewley, Taylor said it’s rare to find a community group or effort that Bewley hasn’t been involved with or helped in some way.
She has served as president and a board member of the Greeneville-Greene County History Museum, Youth Builders of Greeneville Inc., the Boys & Girls Club of Greeneville and Greene County, the Greeneville Arts Council and Niswonger Performing Arts Center. She is a member of the George Clem Multicultural Alliance and the Greeneville-Greene County Public Library Board of Directors, where she is currently serving as vice chairman.
After serving in various parent organizations while her children were in school, she currently serves on the GHS Sports Hall of Fame Board and on boards of the Fund for Greene County and Greene LEAF — Local Education Advancement Foundation — for Greene County Schools.
On the state level, she has served on the Boys & Girls Clubs in Tennessee board of directors and the Tennessee Area Council board of directors. She has been recognized nationally for her volunteer work with the Boys & Girls Club.
Outstanding Patronage Award recipients Mike and Gwen Roberts have been active supporters of the Greeneville City Schools and other organizations that help children. Mike Roberts is retired from Forward Air, where he served as the senior vice president of marketing.
Taylor said the couple exemplify the value of faith, family and friends through their generosity, particularly to any organization that helps children.
“Gwen and I thank you for this honor, but we feel very undeserving of the recognition,” he said.
After moving to Greeneville in the 1970s, Roberts said he and his wife soon discovered that this was a special community, particularly in regards to education. “We are blessed to be part of a community, which values the fabulous education it gives children,” he said.
Roberts said he has often remarked that person has a lifetime to be an adult, but only a limited time to be a child, and that is why children should be given every opportunity available to grow.
“As a parent, I have a great admiration and appreciation for our school system, for its leadership and educators in the classroom,” he said. “You helped me raise a child.”
With a majority of children living in non-traditional home situations and 8,000 children in foster care across the state, “we need to do anything we can for our children,” he said.
Gwen Roberts also expressed her thanks and encouraged those in attendance to be alert to opportunities to help a child. “Love and encourage any child who comes into your path,” she said.
The Robertses have served on numerous boards and been active members of First Baptist Church since moving to Greeneville. They have been trustees of the Greeneville City Schools Education Foundation and served in such organizations as the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, First Priority of America, the Tennessee and Southwest Virginia advisory board for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the GHS FCA adult chapter.
Getting funds for essential equipment and recruiting new members are just two of the challenges facing local volunteer fire departments.
Fire officials from Greene and surrounding counties had the opportunity to discuss their concerns Monday with U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, at a “Volunteer Firefighters Roundtable” hosted by the congressman at the Greene County Courthouse Annex. Roe listened and will take the comments of volunteer firefighters back to Washington to share with other lawmakers.
“It’s worse than I thought,” Roe said at the conclusion of the meeting, which included about 25 fire chiefs and other volunteer fire department officers from Greene, Cocke, Hancock, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.
“Any assistance I can be with grants, let me know,” Roe said.
He asked the volunteer firefighters about their greatest challenges.
Rural volunteer fire departments in Northeast Tennessee sometimes must compete with much larger professional fire departments across the country to obtain federal grants to pay for fire trucks and other much-needed equipment.
It’s not unusual for the newest trucks used by smaller local volunteer departments to be between 20 to 30 years old, often requiring expensive repairs, Roe was told.
The federal grants are awarded on the basis of a points system.
“Federal grant requests are confusing to me, how the point system works. It’s not easy. I struggle doing the grants,” Mosheim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Harold Williamson said.
“The paperwork can really be labor-intensive,” added Alan Bohms, a member of the McDonald Volunteer Fire Department.
Brad Collins, assistant chief of the Orebank Volunteer Fire Department, said his department hasn’t successfully obtained a federal grant for three years.
“Everybody ought to have the same shot,” Collins said.
Doug Brown, chief of the Treadway Volunteer Fire Department, said fire departments of all sizes ultimately have the same life-saving job.
“I tell people a fire in New York City is no hotter than than a fire in Hancock County and just as hard to put out,” Brown said.
Holt said there were 64 grant awards in 2018 to Tennessee fire departments, compared to 283 in Pennsylvania.
Congress has less money to appropriate than 50 years ago because of recurring expenses such as Medicare, Medicaid and paying down the national debt, Roe said.
Rural fire departments “are getting squeezed” in the competition for money with much larger fire departments, Roe said.
“A fire is a fire whether it’s in Florida or Hancock County. It burns the same,” he told the firefighters.
There are about 700 fire departments of all sizes in Tennessee, all with needs for equipment and other expenses.
“I think they’re trying to set criteria to (make funding possible). I think they really try to be fair,” Roe said. “Obviously, there are more needs than money.”
Difficulty in obtaining federal grants and the age of many of the trucks in use by local fire departments results in “a hard time keeping our apparatus certified,” Williamson said.
“It gets harder every year. The equipment is so expensive,” he said.
Ensuring adequate communications is also a need of many fire departments.
“It is a big thing,” Williamson said.
Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison said a $1.2 million contract was recently signed to provide digital communication capability for the sheriff’s department, with volunteer fire departments the next goal.
“The second priority is our 15 volunteer fire departments. My commitment to these guys is we’re going to have (their) digital communications by probably next year,” Morrison said.
He also suggested a centralized fueling point for volunteer departments to cut costs.
Sheriff Wesley Holt, also chief of the St. James Volunteer Fire Department and assistant chief of the Greene County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments, told Roe that local fire departments often have to “beg, borrow and steal” to obtain needed equipment.
“Eighteen years old is our most recent truck,” added Bohms.
Each fire department holds various fundraisers during the year, but making ends meet is a challenge, Collins said.
“A lot of people don’t donate like they did. It’s a struggle every day,” he said. “The only thing that’s keeping us alive is (the) community.”
Williamson suggested a cellphone tax in Tennessee similar to the one that helps fund 911 operations in the state.
Bohms suggested a small fuel tax percentage of half a cent.
“That half-cent is is enough money to buy each fire department a fire truck,” he said. “We’d love to have 20-year-old equipment. It’s a lot better than what we’re working with now.”
Roe said recent tax increases make it difficult to convince lawmakers to enact new ones, even though he recognizes that volunteer fire departments are vital to the well-being of communities in Tennessee, especially ones in rural areas that depend on a first response from their volunteer fire departments.
“What (it) means is that nobody is going to get there but the local volunteer fire department,” Roe said.
Walt Cross, chief of the Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department in Cocke County, said depending on trucks as old as 30 years means frequent maintenance repairs.
“One of our challenges is maintaining the trucks,” Cross said. “The upkeep of those trucks costs a lot of money.”
When lawmakers in Washington and Nashville consider a vote on a measure to support firefighters, Collins suggested they “remember who went on calls and saved your tail.”
“If your wife or your kids were in a car wreck, would you rather see us with some brand new equipment?” he said.
Holt said access to federal surplus vehicles and other equipment is sometimes available, but “It’s a lot of paperwork and that’s what happens — Tennessee doesn’t want to participate.”
Fire officials said they have had mixed results getting recruits through the Tennessee Promise program. The junior firefighters program has had some success with local departments, but retaining new members remains a challenge, especially with state-mandated training requirements that can total 250 hours a year.
“Today’s (generation) is different” from previous ones where young people were eager to become volunteer firefighters when they turned 18, Collins said.
“We need to make it enticing to get people to come and volunteer,” said Marty Shelton, chief of the Tusculum Volunteer Fire Department.
He said leaders needs to take steps to ensure there’s enough personnel to respond to calls, especially during the daytime.
“The average life of a volunteer now is about 18 months simply because of the requirements,” said Jerry Fleenor, of the Sullivan County Volunteer Fire Department in Blountville, and also chief of the Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association.
“How close is this getting to where you guys (can’t) function?” Roe asked.
“We’re already there,” Collins said.
Roe said lawmakers in Washington were working on a bill to provide health insurance to volunteer firefighters that was derailed by the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ve got to decide as a society if we want to live in a place that’s safe and provide fire coverage and rescue (services),” Roe said.
Roe was set to meet Tuesday with state legislators in Kingsport. He said he will pass on the firefighters’ concerns.
“We will bring up how critical it is,” he said.
Firefighters thanked Roe for listening.
“Any time you can get the political side to listen, it’s always a plus,” Shelton said.
Williamson said after the meeting that recruitment remains a priority for most volunteer fire departments.
“If you don’t have the numbers it doesn’t matter if you have the equipment or not,” he said.
Fleenor said that as of June 2017, volunteers comprised 85% of all U.S. firefighters.
“They save (taxpayers) over $140 billion a year,” Fleenor said. “Volunteers do it for free.”
Jeff Wilburn, chief of the Camp Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Greene County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments, said the meeting with Roe “was useful and very informative.”
Wilburn and others advocate getting the educational system involved in recruiting young firefighters to the volunteer service.
“The times that we are in, really and truthfully, there needs to be more educational things in the schools,” Wilburn said. “There has to be a program in all the high schools to get them interested in firefighting.”
He said mutual aid calls are a fact of daily life because of a lack of manpower.
“We’re calling on other fire departments to help us. We have no choice,” he said. “In the last few years, there’s been a lost generation of community help. It goes back to the educators who can actively help the volunteer fire departments.”
Holt agreed about the need for programs and incentives to attract more volunteers.
“Recruitment now is the biggest need,” he said.
A pair of dangerous weather events are likely to strike Greene County Tuesday, meteorologists warn.
“Very hot temperatures in the afternoon will eventually be followed by strong storms in the evening,” according to the National Weather Service in Morristown. “Take precautions against both of these.”
Tuesday’s temperature high is projected as 94 degrees. But it’s the heat index — what the temperature actually feels like when relative humidity combines with the air temperature — that has forecasters issuing precautions.
The heat index in swaths of western and southern Greene County could reach 101 Tuesday afternoon, the Morristown station forecasts. Greeneville, as well as Tusculum and Afton, could feel like 99.
Other parts of the region, including Knoxville and Chattanooga, could see the heat index hover between 105 and 110 degrees — nearly unheard-of figures in the shadow of the mountains of southern Appalachia.
Across the U.S., about 40 children die every year after they are left in locked vehicles, ﬁgures from the National Weather Service show. The Tennessee Department of Health and the weather service provide tips as the public endures the blistering weather:
Tuesday’s peak temperature of 94 isn’t likely to break a record, although it will come close. The single-day record was set in 2016, when the high reached 96, records from the Morristown station show.
Even as the sizzling temperatures start to wane in the evening, don’t tune out weather reports. Strong winds, frequent lighting and heavy rain is possible as bands of strong storms enter the area. Some of these storms could produce flash flooding, the weather service projects. That’s especially true in areas that drain poorly.
“Some thunderstorms may become severe with damaging winds being the primary hazard,” according to the weather service.
Rain and storms remain in the forecast through Wednesday afternoon. Though the heat index is forecast to dip, it’ll still be toasty the rest of the week, with highs in the upper-80s until the weekend. Storms leave the forecast until Sunday, and then there is only a 30 percent chance.