Fundraiser remembers Don Sproles

Tracy Haun OwensFeature, Inside 640, West Knox

The late Don Sproles had more than one career, but his favorite thing to do was help people. Six years after his passing, he’s still doing just that. The seventh annual Don Sproles Wine and Shine Memorial Evening will be held Friday, July 20, at the Crowne Plaza downtown to benefit the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC). It was an organization dear to his heart, says his wife, Karen.


Don and Karen owned the restaurant The Lunchbox, with downtown and west locations. (The business is now owned by Bradford Catered Events). Don was a UT College of Law graduate and Knoxville attorney before he joined Karen in the restaurant, which she founded in 1981.

He was also very involved with their church, Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan, in Cedar Bluff.

“He was the perfect servant/leader,” Karen says. “Very no-nonsense.”

Through running their business downtown, the Sproles became familiar with the city’s growing homeless population and those who were working hard to help them. In the late 1990s, The Lunchbox began fundraising with VMC and serving regular dinners at their location, which was then at Gay and Jackson.

Karen says she and Don considered VMC’s clients at the time “our neighbors.”

“He just wanted to help people,” Karen says. “It was such a joy to go down there with him to help feed people.”

Karen says that in 2007, she and Don saw the organization transformed under the leadership of former center CEO Ginny Weatherstone, who made the decision to put housing first when dealing with the homeless population. (Weatherstone has retired, but it is a direction continued by CEO Bruce Spangler.)

“They can’t get their lives together when they’re living on the streets,” Karen says. VMC provides housing based on a program of “compassionate accountability,” which resonated with Don.

“He put others’ immediate needs before his own but expected them to try and become their best self,” Karen says.

Don headed up fundraising efforts for Minvilla Manor, 54 VMC-run apartments that provide permanent supportive housing to a particularly vulnerable population. The apartments, which replaced a sketchy residential hotel at Fifth and Broadway, opened in 2010.

Don became chair of the VMC board in 2011. Karen says he told her one of the hardest things he had to do was step down from that position when he became very ill. He died of ocular cancer in 2012.

After his death, the board transitioned an annual fundraising dinner into a memorial evening to honor Don. At the event, Karen will be joined by daughters Lauren Karnitz and Amanda Thompson, both local artists, and son Matthew Sproles, who is coming in from Colorado.

She says supporters of the evening include a mix of people who knew Don personally and those who have become involved with VMC in the years since his death.

Don would appreciate the night’s “warm feeling of camaraderie,” Karen says. “His favorite greeting was ‘Hello, friend!’”

The Crowne Plaza is at 401 West Summit Hill Drive. There will be wine tastings as well as moonshine from sponsor Sugarlands Distilling Company, plus live music and silent and live auctions. Check-in starts at 6:30, and tastings begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person. Info: www.vmcinc.org/vmc-wine-shine

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