As with other area non-profits, Knoxville’s Mission of Hope has had to bob and weave its way through the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust fire on normal operations. The familiar blue donation barrels that appear every Christmas season are stacked and put away in a west Knoxville warehouse. And there they shall remain, at least until next year.
That reality, however, does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of executive director Emmette Thompson, who just began his 22nd year with the operation. It also doesn’t mean the mission has ground to a halt. It just means they’ll be doing things a little differently this year.
“We came up with the cyber shopping option last year, thank goodness,” Thompson said, adding that expanding into more online giving options ahead of COVID was more serendipitous than a moment of brilliant foresight. “I am extremely technically challenged.”
Thompson waxes passionately about the Mission’s purpose, providing goods and services to Christian ministries in former coal boom towns dotted throughout Appalachia in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. The Cyber Barrel Christmas Drive to provide food boxes, hygiene boxes, clothing and new toys kicks off Nov. 1. In preparation, the warehouse is being cleared for staging the deliveries to 30 schools in Mission of Hope’s coverage field.
“Years ago, I had to really specify our mission area, because I can’t say ‘no’ to anyone,” Thompson said. “But we serve, basically, the mountain poor in areas that legions have flown over or driven around for years because they’re nowhere near an interstate or large city. No one’s coming in to build an industrial park; there’s no economic development there.”
Humble and self-effacing, Thompson takes enormous pride in the Mission itself. While he’s not one to pick a favorite child, so to speak, his heart for its scholarship program, begun a decade ago, is readily apparent.
“We adjusted to prioritizing those B or C students who would not be considered scholarship material,’ Thompson said. “So many of these kids, their dreams die the night they walk across the stage at graduation.” Not that he has anything against straight A students, but he added “those type of students in these heavily depressed areas, if they’ve got a good guidance counselor, they’ll get a scholarship. We’re focused on those who won’t,” he said, noting that Mission of Hope has paid for 100 students to complete 2- and 4-year programs.
While mostly bubbly and jovial, a couple of subjects brought Thompson moments of somber reflection. One was the loss of long-time supporter and dear friend Ray Fisher, owner of Fisher Tire Company, who died at the end of September. Fisher’s family requested donations to Mission of Hope in his obituary. The other was the ongoing debate about what to do, what not to do regarding the COVID situation.
“I was slow to catch on, though I wasn’t being reckless,” Thompson said while pointing to his face mask. “In the spring I had to realize the percent of people who make up our day-to-day volunteer force being the ages they are. I couldn’t keep putting them in the position, whether they wanted to or not, where they risked exposure. The ‘heroes of the hope’ are almost entirely retired people. They’re why we had to be careful as we restructure and be smart about what we’re doing. Not doing so is simply irresponsible.”
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Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.