Volunteer Rides, partners give like-new car for Christmas

Betty BeanFeature, South Knox

Willie Branum has a heart as big as Texas.

That’s how her pastor, David May, described her Thursday when a group of philanthropists got together to present her with a like-new, fully restored car to replace her 1985 Astrovan.

May is mission pastor at The Gathering, a nondenominational church in South Knoxville that Branum attends. He heads up The Lord’s House charity and has worked closely with Branum, who lives in Sevierville. He described getting a call from Jeff Mynatt, president and founder of Volunteer Rides, which gives away restored, like-new vehicles to deserving recipients.

Mynatt told May he had a car to give away and wanted a recommendation.

May, who has witnessed Branum work tirelessly to feed homeless people in Knoxville and help survivors of the Gatlinburg fires who cannot afford housing, said it was an easy choice.

This is the third year that Mynatt and his wife, Amy, have gotten together with partners like Micah and Josh Reynolds at Courtesy Body Works to fix up a car to give away. This year the Reynolds brothers took a banged-up 2009 Volkswagen Jetta (donated by Volunteer Rotary Club board member Bill King) and worked on the engine, the air intake, the left fender, the bumper and headlights.

Mynatt is manager of Byrd’s Automotive and uses his business connections in service of his charity. His friends at Volunteer Rotary pitched in to help, and the group gathered Thursday morning to present Branum and her 18-month-old grandson, Braelynn, whom she is raising, with a shiny red station wagon and $500 for insurance.

“Totally surprised, totally thankful” was how she described her feelings at the end of the day.

She said she has already promised her old van to some people who have been helping her in Gatlinburg, where she has gotten to know a whole community of “really precious people” in need. She has a vision for them and one day hopes to be able to acquire enough acreage to build tiny houses with enough land left over to farm and build a community that she plans to call Restoration Village.

“If I can get enough people in tiny houses willing to work and put half their salary in the bank, after a year they’d have a fund for housing. People are willing to work, but they’ve got to have a place to go,” she said. “We’re on the streets constantly.”

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