It wasn’t the loaves and fishes, but some hardy volunteers multiplied small donations into special meals for the volunteers and residents at warming centers in Knoxville.
Nykky Harper had no idea how much 120 breakfast biscuits weighed. “I also didn’t realize how much more my heart could be changed by this opportunity over the past week,” she said.
Harper and her family were volunteers to bring food and supplies to the warming centers set up to aid unhoused Knoxvillians during last week’s snow and low temperatures. The 120 biscuits were for residents about to leave the shelter at Vestal. “One to eat and one to take,” said Nykky, who spent about $400 at Chick-fil-A on Chapman Highway.
Bill Dockery told me about Nykky, who lives near him in Holston Hills. “She’s amazing,” he said.
Nykky relied on her neighbors and Holston Hills Country Club for donations. She called it a blessing, “To serve the people that, if we’re being honest, most of us divert our eyes from. …
“These same people who rushed out to my car this morning to take the weight I was carrying and put it on their own shoulders. They thanked me over and over for hot food. For an opportunity to have Chick-fil-A. For not diverting my eyes from theirs, and for seeing that they, like me, were created in the image of God.”
Pastor Tim Jackson we’ve written about before. He is developing youth housing in the former education wing of Vestal United Methodist Church and serves as pastor there. He was asked to run a similar neighborhood program at the Magnolia UMC which had been closed and was at risk of demolition.
He and his small congregations opened warming centers at both locations December 23-26, 2023, and out of that came a partnership with the city of Knoxville. The story in his words:
“First of all, let me say that I am overwhelmed by the amount of encouragement and support we received at our warming centers at Vestal and Magnolia by our city, county and residents of Knoxville!
“We could see by the forecast that we were going to have frigidly cold weather last week, so both churches prepared and asked our surrounding community to help. They did. And so, when the weather hit, our doors were open, our volunteers in place and both churches supplied.
“I cannot be prouder of our churches. We have no fulltime staff and very (VERY) small budgets. If Vestal and Magnolia can do this, any church can.
“I believe both churches were a powerful witness to the hands-on nature of gospel (John 13:1-17) and how to love and serve those Christ has placed in our care.”
As the temperatures stayed below freezing, the snow packed into ice on roads and sidewalks. The warming centers were operating beyond capacity. Some people seeking refuge at Vestal UMC were transported to the city-run South Knoxville Community Center. A third warming center, coordinated by the Knoxville-Knox County Office of Housing Stability, was located at Cokesbury Church in West Knoxville.
Working social media
The call went out to Nykky Harper. And she worked social media:
“We just dropped off to the most grateful people. A woman wept because it had been years since she has had lasagna. A young man maybe early 20s was excited that it was Stouffers. An older military veteran was excited to have a cot to sleep on tonight.
“Here is my current crazy thought. I am at Baker Boy Pizza Company. They can feed the entire warming center in Vestal lunch tomorrow for about $200! That would give the volunteers a break from cooking and enough pizza for them as well!!
“If you’re willing and able to donate I’ll add my Venmo to comments. …”
Later that day she posted:
“I cannot express how thankful I am for everyone who helped with pizza and dessert for the people staying at the community center!!! You not only bought pizza and dessert, you also bought 20 cases of soda, plates and napkins! With enough donated to buy the breakfast needs for the Magnolia location!! They loved Baker Boy Pizza Company (a new business on Cherry Street) and I do too! I can’t say enough about the young men who run the restaurant! They are fantastic and the pizza is amazing!! I will reassess needs in the morning and share!!”
Nykky included photos of her husband, Bill, and their kids, Connor and Abigail. All were lugging sodas and other food items into shelters. Nykky, 43, holds down a fulltime job as an ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital. The Harpers attend Sevier Heights Baptist Church.