NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Volunteers moved furniture and debris at three houses in South Nashville on Saturday, May 1, continuing cleanup efforts begun weeks ago after thunderstorms and devastating flooding. More than 7 inches of rain fell March 27-28, resulting in flash floods that led to multiple deaths, devastated neighborhoods, and hundreds of displaced residents.
“Nashvillians have shown tremendous resiliency and support for one another over the past year,” said Mayor John Cooper. “The residents whose lives were upended by recent flooding are looking at a long road to recovery. But with community support, survivors will get the help they need to recover and rebuild.”
Residents from nearly 500 houses have reported the need for assistance with demolishing damaged walls and floors, removing debris, and moving furniture. Volunteers recruited by Hands On Nashville (HON) have spent more than 3,200 hours canvassing, cleaning up debris, mucking and gutting houses, and distributing food and supplies.
“We are truly grateful to the volunteers and organizations helping these survivors recover,” said HON President & CEO Lori Shinton, who chairs the Nashville VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). “But the reality is a lot of people who need help haven’t gotten it yet. So sustained community involvement is absolutely critical.”
HON and other members of Nashville VOAD — a coalition of more than 50 nonprofits, government departments, and community organizations that work together to provide survivor support in the aftermath of disaster — are collaborating to meet the needs of survivors through supply distribution, cleanup work, case management, and more. Saturday’s volunteer cleanup event was held in collaboration with disaster-relief organizations and Nashville VOAD members including Inspiritus, Team Rubicon, Rebuilding Together Nashville and Westminster Home Connection. The Community Resource Center and HON supplied PPE, tools and other equipment for the projects.
“The flood in South Nashville has impacted the Hispanic community in ways that most people don’t see or fully understand,” said Diane Janbakhsh, founder and CEO of the Hispanic Family Foundation. “The families that were affected don’t have access to the resources necessary to rebuild and move on, and subsequently fall through the cracks when it comes to disaster recovery.”
Janbakhsh chairs the Long-Term Recovery Group (LTRG) for the flood, and said she aims to foster a better understanding of the needs of immigrant communities within the group.
“The trust that the Hispanic community has in the Hispanic Family Foundation and our commitment to them creates a unique opportunity to serve them more effectively and opens the door to trust in LTRG’s mission to help and serve all families affected by disasters regardless of race, sex, language, or religion,” Janbakhsh said.
It’s National Volunteer Week! And while Hands On Nashville celebrates volunteers every day of the year, we want to mark this occasion by sharing a very special and sincere THANK YOU with the volunteers who have given so much of themselves to help their neighbors.
“We are living in a moment that calls for hope and light and love. Hope for our futures, light to see our way forward, and love for one another. Volunteers provide all three. Service — the act of looking out for one another — is part of who we are as a Nation. Our commitment to service reflects our understanding that we can best meet our challenges when we join together. This week, we recognize the enduring contributions of our Nation’s volunteers and encourage more Americans to join their ranks.”
We’re so excited to once again celebrate the amazing contributions of Middle Tennessee volunteers during the 35th Annual Mary Catherine Strobel Volunteer Awards. Nominations will be open April 1-16, 2021.
1. The awards are totally online this year and all finalists will be featured on hon.org for a month. There will be a fun public voting component to spread their amazing stories of service far and wide.
2. Prize money! Each award recipient will receive a $1,000 gift card from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to give to the charity of their choice. Finalists will receive $250 CFMT gift cards to donate to the charity of their choice.
3. New categories! We’ve updated the categories a little bit to reflect the challenges of 2020 and the dedicated volunteers who rose to meet them. The two new categories are:
Social Justice Impact Volunteer Award Recognizes individuals whose volunteer work in 2020 was centered on dismantling or calling out systemic injustice and oppressionand lifting up disenfranchised communities.
Disaster Relief Volunteer Award Recognizes individuals who made a significant contribution to helping Nashville recover from the tornado, pandemic, or bombing in 2020.
Think of all the incredible people you know who go above and beyond to help others, and consider thanking them by nominating them for a Strobel Award!
After a successful pilot in early 2021, Hands On Nashville and Vanderbilt’s Ingram Scholars Program (ISP) will expand our partnership for the fall academic semester, connecting additional undergraduate Scholars with nonprofits and civic agencies across Davidson County. The ISP, founded in 1994, strives to facilitate service opportunities relating to each Scholar’s respective interests and to prepare Scholars for professional careers grounded in social progress.
“We are beyond thrilled to join Hands On Nashville’s incredible network,” says Garrett Singer, ISP Service Coordinator. “The Ingram Scholars Program is known for its long-standing commitment to reciprocal and durable service. Our newly established partnership with HON will allow our Scholars to better meet the needs of Nashville’s nonprofit community, simultaneously deepening their commitment to social progress and accelerating their personal development.”
Scholars pursue their chosen passion though a rigorous four-year curriculum that emphasizes durable, sustainable service initiatives. Each of Vanderbilt’s 40 Scholars is required to complete 16 hours of service per month during the academic year, for a total value of nearly $4,000 per community partner per year.
Early in 2021, Scholars served remotely, but Singer says the program is looking to have remote and in-person options for Scholars this fall.
Hands On Nashville and the ISP will host a virtual information session for interested nonprofits on Wednesday, March 31, at 1p.m. to discuss:
Curricular overview – What projects are Ingram Scholars equipped to participate in?
Ensuring reciprocity – Coaching Scholar development in organizational capacity-building
Finalizing opportunities – A timeline for the summer and fall
If your organization is interested in learning more about hosting an Ingram Scholar later this year, please email A.T. Branch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and copy Garrett Singer, ISP Service Coordinator (email@example.com) for an invitation to the virtual information session!
When the tornadoes hit, Melissa Alexander wasted no time finding a volunteer project to help survivors.
That’s who Melissa is, though — she goes above and beyond for people, and doesn’t seem to think twice about it. That makes her among the most prolific tornado-response volunteers in HON.org’s database, having registered for dozens of projects and logged hundreds of volunteer hours.
“After the tornado hit, I knew I couldn’t just stay home,” she says. “I’m from Texas, and that’s just not what you do there. After a disaster, if someone needs your help, you just go.”
Melissa lives in Hermitage, about a block away from the path of destruction that spanned more than 60 miles overnight on March 2, 2020. She was without power for four days, and, looking back, is grateful to have had the opportunity to get out of the house and be of service to others.
She began volunteering at the Hermitage Community Center, sorting donations of apples, oranges, and other food and essentials. After about a week, when the center was running smoothly, she began looking for other ways to help. She had already attended volunteer leadership training at the Hands On Nashville headquarters. A liaison from Mayor John Cooper’s office determined she would be a great fit to begin supporting case management by alerting survivors to the resources that were available.
Melissa began canvassing the Hermitage area daily, going door to door to ask residents a series of questions:
“Are you working with a good contractor? Are they licensed?”
“Do you have your tetanus shot?”
“Do you know how to get to the community center?”
“Do you have your water and power turned on?”
It was more or less what she had been trained for, Melissa says, and she enjoyed the spark of hope residents would show when she was able to share information on a resource they were previously unaware of.
“‘They would ask, ‘Who are you with?’” and I would say, ‘Oh, I’m just a volunteer with Hands On Nashville, going around to make sure you’re aware of all of the services available in the community after a tornado.’ They loved it,” she says. “They were so grateful that somebody was just coming around and checking in on them.”
Melissa volunteered for weeks this way, reporting each morning to the city’s liaison, receiving her neighborhood assignments, then heading out with her bags of apples and oranges to distribute throughout the community. She estimates she spent more than 300 hours volunteering over the course of three months.
One day in particular stands out to Melissa — the day she was reassigned to North Nashville, on March 27. Rain was moving into the area, and the city needed additional help identifying houses that needed tarps.
“I went to Project Connect Nashville and started volunteering over there, four days a week, for about three months,” she says. “I’m still pretty committed to Project Connect. They do a lot for that North Nashville community.”
Once in North Nashville, Melissa says she found strength in the community to keep coming back day after day. The work was tiring, but, without fail, each morning when she arrived, there would be 30 people waiting outside Project Connect’s doors for a hot meal.
“When you see that many people waiting to get a hot meal, you can’t just say no,” Melissa says. “And the people were so eager for help. They wanted to know what resources were available or how to do something.”
And that’s how Melissa met Mary.
“She’s the lady who made me cry on my first day,” Melissa says. “A neighbor had called to bring her meals, and I was the first one to have checked up on her since the storm. That day she was upset because her FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) request was denied, and she just bawled.”
Melissa bonded with Mary, who is 83 years old, right away. She worked to get Mary’s phone back in service, reinstall her security light, and create some raised garden beds for her. They still talk or text regularly.
“I even helped her organize the inside of her house, and we shredded papers for three days,” Melissa says. “She kept everything. She had checkbooks from the ’80s. So I helped her shred papers, and it was so fun. Older people have the best stories.”
Throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, Melissa continued to work with Project Connect. She’s an avid mask-wearer, and says she practiced good hygiene long before the pandemic, crediting her work as a behavioral analyst who often worked with clients with auto-immune disorders. She says the Red Cross and Project Connect were thorough with their protocols, and that she never felt unsafe while volunteering.
Melissa’s background has proved invaluable throughout her time volunteering. Being from Texas, she was familiar with disaster response and FEMA, and by working with lower-income families she’s also familiar with food-assistance and housing programs. As Project Connect transitioned their services to working mainly from the resource center, Melissa jokes that she became known as the “resource guru.” To this day she has about 60 bookmarks — in multiple languages — stored in her phone to offer to people for help.
“You always have a skill,” she says, “and you always have something you can do that goes toward something that someone else needs.”
And while the recovery process has spanned the past year, Melissa knows there’s still more recovery and healing that needs to happen.
“There’s so many houses still not touched,” she says. “You can drive through Hermitage now and see the changes. But in North, there’s still boards on the windows, tarps on the roofs. There’s still so much work to be done.”
Tornado survivors can get access to a variety of resources and support through the Tornado Recovery Connection. If you know any tornado survivors, please make sure they know to call TRC at 615-270-9255.
Ben Piñon was a Hands On Nashville AmeriCorps member in 2019-2020. His Riverside neighborhood sustained significant damage during the March 3, 2020, tornado. With the help of countless volunteers, Ben and his neighbors worked to clean up, offer each other comfort, and put their lives back together. Ben also led tornado-recovery volunteer projects for Hands On Nashville across the Metro Nashville area through the end of his term in November 2020.
By Ben Piñon
I’m going to miss Dave. I’ll miss each of you too, don’t get me wrong. But I’m really going to miss Dave.
Dave would walk his tiny but feisty little dog past our house every day after work. Princess, he calls her. I’ll miss the care in Dave’s eyes every time he would repeat his signature phrase: “Anything you need, just call me, you got my number.”
Every so often Dave would stop by with a box or two of donuts, leftovers from the store he manages. One day, he brought us 17 dozen.
“Dave, what am I going to do with all these donuts?!?”
“Give ‘em away. You know people.”
I really don’t know that many people in Nashville. I wish I did. Definitely didn’t before surviving the tornado — didn’t even know Dave before then. It probably looked like I knew people as I hugged several of you on your front lawns, directed volunteers showing up to help out that first week, let our living room become a donation storage space. I was just trying to be a good neighbor. It was over so quick though, and a year later, with all but that one remarkable week under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t so easy to keep building on those connections the tornado had brought into being.
By the time you read this, we will have left. Moved out a couple weeks short of the one-year anniversary. I write this letter from our new house, still in East Nashville, only 2 miles down the road. Far enough though that we won’t simply run into each other anymore. Far enough that Dave can’t stop by with the same regularity, far enough that we’ll be just as anonymous to our new neighbors as we were to you 16 months ago back in October of 2019 when we packed up the car in Oregon and landed two weeks later, by some weird twist of fate, on East Nashville’s Riverside Drive.
I imagined a whole lot for us even before the leaves on the broken branches had lost their color. It’s what we dreamers do. I imagined us having big block parties, coffee and tea in each other’s living rooms, emotional community forums, the fences separating us never getting rebuilt. I wanted us to be good neighbors. To stay good neighbors.
Recovery is not glorious as you well know. It’s not a neat fairy tale that magically ends happily ever after. I’m not sure it ever really ends. Remember how fast the tornado made us the center of attention? How we became yesterday’s news just as quickly? The world keeps turning, my friends, and it turns brutally. Another, bigger crisis made our situation no easier to solve and much easier to overlook. Some of you still haven’t moved back in. Some of you ended up out of work, out of money, low on your dignity. You lost family members, friends, or mentors since then, all while houses were still being repaired, developers were hawking, and landlords were itching to sell, raise the rent, or build back those destroyed rentals around the corner taller, skinner, and more expensive than the old tenants could afford. Just like you can’t stop a tornado from coming, you can’t just put all the pieces back together again once it’s passed. If that was the goal, we’ve lost.
One of my favorite musicians has this song — “Stay Human.” On the second day of the cleanup, I borrowed a can of spray paint and on a piece of plywood that used to live under your roof I wrote those two words as big as I could for the world to see.
The song starts like this: “I remember when I was just a boy, Mama said this world was not always a paradise.” Ain’t that the truth.
I get sad sometimes about what might have become but never did, I can’t lie. But I also don’t feel like we lost.
We may not have gotten our fairy tale, but we did what we had to do to keep moving. For me, it was growing a garden in our freshly cleared backyard — never before did it have the sunlight or open space to support one. We called it our farm. Like good neighbors, you graciously took all the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes we didn’t adequately prepare for off our hands.
“Don’t you give up on me,” the song continues. “’Cause I won’t give up on you.”
How could I? You painted tree stumps with words of encouragement, so we stopped by on our walks to say hello, a thank you of sorts, only to receive even more nuanced advice on life. You let us join your cookout on July 4th, gave us plates of leftovers to take home, treated us like family. You were genuine with us, speaking openly on the pain of losing an adult daughter or son. And Dave, your vulnerability in sharing with me stories of the harassment you faced growing up Black in Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s, that was a real gift. You and so many of the neighbors held onto your generosity, your sincerity, and your humanity through just about everything.
“All I’m trying to do, is stay human with you.”
I found a lot of joy and comfort in sharing the same three square blocks of real estate with y’all for as long as it lasted. At least for me, being your neighbor helped me stay human through some strange times. I’m grateful to all of you for that. I can only wish some of that same peace befalls you as all our lives keep moving forward, if only just a little further apart. Oh, and I wish you some more good neighbors now that we’re gone. You deserve good neighbors.
2020 was a year marked by immense challenges, but also by so many stories of people stepping up and coming together to support their neighbors. Volunteers played a huge part in helping Nashville get through a tough year. We’re honored to share Hands On Nashville’s 2020 Impact Report, which shows the strong and inspiring impact of volunteerism.
If you’d like to receive a PDF copy of this impact report, fill out the form below!
“Love in action is service to the world.” Lynne Namka
For some lucky locals, opening their hearts to service also opened their lives to finding love. Here are just a few of their stories, plus some volunteer opportunities that would be a great way for couples to get to know one another!
Cara and Carey
Cara Ince’s love story started when she found a volunteer opportunity in HON’s Hands On Call newsletter in 2010. She found that Nashville International Center for Empowerment was looking for volunteers to teach English as a second language, signed up, and began teaching a class. A few months later, another volunteer named Carey came on as an assistant teacher in her class.
They hit it off and volunteered together at NICE for about two years. They’ve now been married for almost seven years and have two small children.
“We still always talk about our students and have such fond memories of that time,” Cara says. “It was definitely a cool experience, and a really good way to get to know someone when you’re first starting to date.”
And while they don’t volunteer as much these days as they used to because they’re busy at home with their two children, they are beginning to talk about ways, once the pandemic is over, they could engage the whole family in volunteering.
“We want [them] to be appreciative of what we have and also to give back to other people,” Cara says.
Jordan and Kirsten
Jordan Fernandes met his future wife Kirsten as a volunteer with The Bridge Ministry, serving groceries and meals to individuals experiencing homelessness. Kirsten had just graduated college and moved back to Nashville when she decided to volunteer with some friends.
“For them it was a one-time visit, but I liked it so much that I came back again and again,” she says. During one of her shifts, while they were unloading a grocery truck, Jordan spotted Kirsten. He introduced himself not long afterwards and the two became friends. Their friendship evolved into dating, and Kirsten says they fell madly in love.
“Throughout our time getting to know each other, we always knew that we had a guaranteed date every Tuesday night serving the homeless under the Jefferson Street Bridge,” Kirsten says.
Jordan proposed in 2015 and the couple married in 2016. They’re now expecting their first child.
“Volunteering played a huge part of our story together, and volunteering in various capacities around Nashville continues to be so important to us,” Kirsten says. “It allows us to share our love beyond just our family to families and individuals throughout Nashville!”
Ava and Tristan
Ava Suppelsa was feeling helpless last summer in the wake of a deadly tornado and the pandemic. She wanted to do something tangible to help the many people in the community who were hurting. So Ava, a songwriter, started Hope on the Row, a nonprofit that connects music industry professionals with homelessness relief efforts.
Her boyfriend Tristan — also a songwriter — was a source of strength and support as she launched the nonprofit. Ava says the two of them grew up in families that emphasized giving back, so they had volunteered together over the course of their two-year relationship. But starting a nonprofit was a whole different ballgame.
“I didn’t really know exactly how much work I was getting myself into, and I wouldn’t be able to do this without Tristan,” Ava says. “He’s been there with me for every stressful, hard, frustrating, beautiful, and rewarding moment that comes with running and organization like this, and that only brought us closer.”
Now the organization serves more than 50 people each week, and helps individuals navigate the low-income housing system with a goal of getting as many people off the streets as possible.
“We’ve both seen each other at our best, truest selves that come out when you’re doing work like this,” Ava says, “and I think I speak for both of us when I say that seeing that makes you fall in love with your partner all over again.”
Patrick and Patti
When Patrick Lyons moved to Nashville in 1993, he didn’t know a soul. Then he saw a writeup in the Nashville Scene for Hands On Nashville volunteer orientation.
“I thought, ‘What a great way to meet people,’” Patrick says. He went to orientation and learned that he could volunteer in the evenings and on weekends, which fit his travel-heavy work schedule.
One day he volunteered at an event at Cheekwood, taking tickets. That’s when he met Patti, who had also found the volunteer opportunity through HON.
“We found out more about each other and talked about how hard it is to meet people,” Patti says. “Then he called me up and asked me out.”
Patti and Patrick quickly realized they both shared a heart for service.
“I knew he was a good guy because he was volunteering,” Patti says. “We knew we were like-minded people.”
“It was a pre-screening we didn’t have to do,” Patrick says, laughing.
Patrick and Patti took their relationship — and their commitment to volunteering — to the next level. Patti became HON’s executive director and Patrick served on HON’s board of directors. While Patrick and the rest of the board reached out to nonprofits to tell them about HON, Patti compiled the volunteer opportunity calendar manually by making phone calls to local organizations, typing up volunteer needs, and making copies of the calendar to distribute around town.
The couple live in Savannah, Ga., now, but they still believe in the power of giving back — volunteering, delivering meals, mentoring, serving on advisory boards. Patti says she sees HON in the news sometimes and is so proud of how the organization has grown.
Volunteering through HON is a great way to meet people in a new city, Patrick says. He found love with Patti, but he also made lifelong friends.
“The organization did wonders with putting together like-minded people,” he says. “I’ve probably got seven close friends I’m still in touch with after 26 years.”
Volunteer opportunities that would be great for dates
Looking for a way to spend some time with your sweetie over Valentine’s Day? Check out these volunteer opportunities!
In spite of — and because of — all the challenges of 2020, Nashville volunteers made a strong showing in 2020. The numbers below reflect a community that shows up for its neighbors. We are grateful for you. See you in 2021!
Volunteers who signed up to serve: 52,000+
New hon.org volunteer registrations: 34,000+
Projects on the calendar: 6,600+
Virtual or remote projects: 440+
New long-term or flexibly scheduled projects: 160+
Economic value volunteers created for community partners: $2.29 million
SKILLS-BASED AND LONG-TERM SERVICE
• HON placed 23 AmeriCorps members at 13 local nonprofits for a yearlong term of service.
• HON’s GeekCause volunteers completed 24 tech projects, which saved our community partners $169,773.
• The corporate engagement team enlisted 1,265 volunteers who donated 6,100+ hours of their time to support 13 local nonprofits.
• Several employee teams utilized new at-home and kit-based project models to create 5,000+ care packages for teachers, students, veterans, individuals experiencing homelessness, and seniors. Those at-home projects allowed many to engage their families in their volunteer activities.
• Individuals who signed up to help with disaster relief: 35,000+
• Individuals who volunteered at a disaster-relief project (some many times): 11,200+
• Disaster-relief projects completed since March: 2,300+
We kicked off 2020 thinking we’d usher in a spring of commemoration. It had been 10 years since the devastating flood of 2010, during which time thousands of volunteers came together in a show of solidarity and spirit.
But hopes for reflection turned into action, this time in response to the March 3 tornado and COVID-19 pandemic. Again, volunteers showed how absolutely critical they are during disaster response and recovery.
We’re excited to share with you a video that celebrates the spirit of the volunteers helping our community get through this challenging time.
Hands On Nashville is in awe of this community. It’s not easy for folks to give to others while they themselves are hurting. But that’s what Nashvillians do. It’s who we are.
We’re working hard to be ready for the next disaster, and we can’t do it without you. Join us by volunteering or donating.