Back in business, thanks be to God

Ladies of Charity weathers the COVID storm through a dedicated team of volunteers, young and older

By Bill Brewer

The Ladies of Charity and Home Depot share a remarkable achievement: both finished 2020 in the black despite the coronavirus pandemic.

And while many home-supply retailers were helped by consumers spending COVID-19 stimulus checks in their stores during the year, the Ladies of Charity’s financial report could be seen as more herculean.

The charitable services organization relies on a dedicated network of volunteers and donors to carry out its mission. Never has that been more important than in the last year as the pandemic forced it to rethink its operation.

University of Tennessee-Knoxville students perform landscaping outside the Ladies of Charity.

While it twice had to curtail much of what it did in 2020, the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville continued to serve its clients, many of whom are low- or no-income residents in the inner city. Impromptu alterations in services included closing its thrift store, which is an important source of revenue, and restricting contact with clients to a makeshift, socially distanced drive-through in the parking lot of the facility at 120 W. Baxter Ave.

That began in March 2020 and continued for a number of weeks until the operation reopened.

However, several weeks later it was forced to close again due to COVID-19 cases. The thrift store and large warehouse where most of the donated items such as clothes, furniture, and food are stored reopened in January.

The 2021 reopening was just in time for the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service.

Student leaders involved in the Jones Center are volunteering their time during the spring semester to organize merchandise, do landscaping, fill basic-needs packets for Ladies of Charity clients, and perform other duties.

It’s a reversal of misfortune for the charitable services organization whose mission is to serve those in need.

Barring any further COVID setbacks, the Ladies of Charity has resumed operations in full, as attested to by the recent steady stream of people dropping off donated items or stopping to shop the thrift store and browse through the warehouse.

Susan Unbehaun, executive director of the Ladies of Charity of Knoxville, said the organization ended pandemic-riddled 2020 in the black, “which was a blessing from God.”

When it was suggested to her that only the Ladies of Charity and Home Depot were able to finish the year in the black, Mrs. Unbehaun suggested otherwise.

“It’s because of parishioners that we got there. It’s been a tough year,” she said, pointing out that Ladies of Charity supporters were instrumental in keeping the organization going during the pandemic. The Knights of Columbus did coat drives to collect cold-weather coats for distribution to those adults and children needing them. The Knights of Columbus at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus supplied pasta every month. St. Vincent de Paul societies stepped up to assist. Donations of food and drink were made by Second Harvest Food Bank, Borden, Food Rescue, and Bimbo Bread.

“It was this network of helping. It really was fun to be a part of even though it was such a bad situation. It was very stressful,” Mrs. Unbehaun said.

She said for three months Borden was giving them $500 in milk each week; Food Rescue donated and continues to donate food from its network, and Bimbo donated and continues to donate bread. Every donation was, and is, welcome and used, according to Mrs. Unbehaun.

“We are distributing everything that gets dropped off,” she said. “We had a little girl making candy-cane reindeer to hand out to children with the coats. She made a hundred of them on her own and delivered them on her birthday, and that was her giving. Her parents were interested in her giving. These kids are learning giving, and that is really cool.”

Mrs. Unbehaun also complimented the UT students who donated their spare time during the semester to benefit the Ladies of Charity.

Mandie Beeler, director of the Jones Center for Leadership and Service, said different groups of UT students have been contributing service hours at Ladies of Charity, and collectively they have packed food boxes, sorted through donations, and even bagged sweet potatoes.

“We think it’s really important to expose them to a bunch of different opportunities to find what their passions are and to show them that one person can make a difference,” Ms. Beeler said. “We see how our one little act joins with a bunch of other acts to make a really big difference. We love doing this and giving our students this experience. It also helps them feel like they’re a part of the Knoxville community. Being a part of the community is a crucial part of retaining these students. Our goal is to graduate citizen leaders, and we want to give them that experience, and we think we’re doing it through things like this.”

On one weekday in February, Ms. Beeler drove a group of UT coeds to Ladies of Charity, where they spent the morning sorting clothing, filling food boxes, and packing toiletry kits. On a Saturday morning also in February, another group of young men and women from UT gathered outside of Ladies of Charity and did landscaping to spruce up the Happy Holler lot.

Ms. Beeler said the Ladies of Charity is just the kind of organization the Jones Center looks to partner with.

“We depend on our community partner organizations like Ladies of Charity to host our student groups, to allow us to come and serve them. With the Ladies of Charity, it’s really important to us because the mission really exhibits the volunteer spirit, wanting to help your community, to make it better, to treat everyone equally and with love and respect,” Ms. Beeler said. “We really appreciate what is happening here (Ladies of Charity), and our students always love coming to serve here because they are never bored, they always have plenty to do, and they can see the direct impact of their service, which then makes them want to continue to serve more.”

Ladies of Charity also offers teaching moments to the students.

“We’re trying to teach our students that one small act of kindness can really make a big difference in what they’re doing and in their communities. They don’t have to have a bunch of money or a bunch of time. They just need a little bit of heart and care and something to give back, and the willingness to do that,” Ms. Beeler noted. “We think it’s really important to expose them to a bunch of different opportunities to find what their passions are and to show them that one person can make a difference.”

Freshmen Alex Helms and Stella Clymer are among the dozens of UT-K students engaged in the Jones Center experience. As Jones Center ambassadors, they are liaisons between the students and Ladies of Charity.

On the February weekday they were working at Ladies of Charity, the UT students joining them were in honors programs, Miss Helms said.

“I heard about this (Jones Center for Leadership and Service) from someone who came to one of my classes. She did a presentation on it. Now she is a grad assistant for the class, and she told us all about the JCLS and its mission that anyone can become a leader. That just really spoke to me. I decided to apply and got it,” Miss Clymer said.

University of Tennessee students assist the Ladies
of Charity in Knoxville with its inventory as part of a UT leadership and service project to help the community.

“It’s all about volunteering and making these connections. After we volunteer we always do a debrief where we gather everyone together, and we talk about what it means for the community, what it means to them, how this experience helps them, what they can do in the future to continue this service. That’s what it’s really all about for us,” Miss Clymer added.

On the February morning the coeds volunteered, University of Tennessee- Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman joined them in assisting inside the distribution center, filling toiletry kits.

Ms. Beeler said Chancellor Plowman’s participation illustrates how important community service and leadership training is to her. Chancellor Plowman believes community service embodies the volunteer spirit she wants to instill on the UT campus.

“I think this works two ways. We talk all the time when we’re recruiting students that you’re coming here to be a volunteer. What does that mean? We want students on day one to learn what selfless service, selfless leadership means. We don’t want it to be something you only talk about; you just actually do it. It changes their lives,” she said.

Chancellor Plowman understood that students volunteering at Ladies of Charity worked fast and efficiently, which helped in the operation of Ladies of Charity, which she described as “an incredible service.”

She called the Jones Center for Leadership and Service “an amazing program that’s helping students learn about service and leadership, learning by doing.”

“The service hours they put in is part of learning about the community they live in and learning what it means to give back. Volunteers and leaders are always involved in communities trying to make a difference. We are really grateful to the Jones family for that gift, and I see all the time the transformation in the lives of students who go through there,” Chancellor Plowman said.

Mrs. Unbehaun is grateful to everyone who worked to keep the Ladies of Charity’s doors open, students and non-students alike, who then continued working to reopen those doors during a difficult period. As invaluable as the volunteers have been, she thanked God for all the blessings that kept Ladies of Charity going amid a year of COVID-19.

And just like with the UT-K student volunteers, Mrs. Unbehaun believes 2020 was an intense learning experience for everyone associated with the Ladies of Charity.

“We are not in control here. God is in control. That is a lesson that we learned,” she said.

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