Year of Carter Compassion: Center encourages others to help break generational poverty
Published 9:51 am Monday, November 6, 2023
By Buzz Trexler
A family is broken.
The parents are homeless and have lost custody of their children, who are now living with their grandparents.
It’s not a hopeless situation, thanks to the volunteers and staff at Carter Compassion Center, who work with the parents as they gain employment, obtain housing, have their children returned, and build a stable life.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Board of Directors President Brandon Young. “It’s wonderful to see.”
But as beautiful and wonderful a thing as the restoration of a family can be, the idea behind the center is homelessness prevention by helping people navigate a system that can pull them out of poverty.
“We would like to be proactive enough to where if they have housing, keeping them in that housing and work with them before they lose the house,” Young says. “We would like to prevent some homelessness before it ever occurs.”
As the nonprofit center passes its one-year anniversary of trying to help Carter Countians lift themselves out of poverty, Young says the journey is just beginning.
“We’ve got a lot in place,” says Young. “We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. But we still have a way to go.”
POVERTY IS MULTIGENERATIONAL
The cautious tone is understandable as Young describes individuals and families caught in multigenerational poverty.
“They don’t know how to get out of it,” Young says, and the center’s goal is to coordinate available resources, help create a plan of action, and assign a mentor to help that person follow through as “they work that plan of action” with hopes of breaking that cycle of poverty.
“We’re trying to undergird these individuals where we’re not just giving out money, but we’re teaching them how to fish, and we’re there with them,” Young says. “If they’re looking for a handout, and that’s all they’re looking for, we’re not going to be the place they’re going to want to come to. But if they’re looking for us to coordinate their resources, and assist them in getting out of poverty, this would be the place to start.”
While the roots of poverty in Upper East Tennessee often go back generations, Carter Compassion Center is young: The center grew out of a 2019 Carter County Commission task force on poverty and homelessness and is housed in the former Elizabethton-Carter County Chamber of Commerce building at 500 US Highway 19E. The organization leases the building from the city for $1 a year. Young says much of the first year’s funding – primarily from TVA and Elizabethton Electric Department grants – went toward repairing and updating the building.
“We’ve had volunteers paint. We’ve had young people come down on mission projects,” he says. “We’ve had plumbers and HVAC folks that donated a complete HVAC system. So, we’ve been very blessed with donations.”
Still, the center is still working on developing an operating budget as it has yet to establish a “steady flow of income.”
Leading the nonprofit center is just one of many jobs that occupy the 43-year-old Young: He also serves as pastor at Harmony Freewill Baptist Church, 3405 Gap Creek Road in Hampton, and is chaplain for Hampton-Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department.
Young is not on this journey alone: The center works with area churches and other nonprofit and public agencies to help those in difficult situations understand another world is possible for them and future generations, and to work toward that end. Others on the board include Vice President Michael Simerly (Elizabethton City Council member), Secretary-Treasurer Karen Jones, Carter County Commissioner Thomas Proffitt (8th District), Carter County Commissioner Robert Acuff (1st District), Todd Hallman (pastor, Elizabethton First Baptist Church), and Kathy Thomason, who also serves at Loaves and Fishes, a meal ministry in Elizabethton.
NEW DIRECTOR NAMED
The center also has a new director, Mikki Fletcher, who joined the team on Oct. 17. Fletcher serves as student support coordinator at Carter County Schools. She is a 1985 graduate of Hampton High School and a 1989 graduate of East Tennessee State University, where she studied psychology, sociology, and business management. Fletcher also studied criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University and previously worked with the Tennessee Department of Children Services.
“I just felt like this is a good system, just to take so much off of other people, off the pastors,” Fletcher says of joining Carter Compassion Center. “I see that they need a hub, and that’s what we are. We make referrals out to other places … “
Fletcher says the goal is to not just “hand out money,” but to assess a person’s needs, connect them to appropriate resources, and create relationships with mentors who will work with them “so that we will not have the same people come back every month needing assistance with utilities, or housing, or whatever it is.”
The Carter County native says this is what she has found in her years of working with students and families: “If they have one person that they feel a connection to, then they’re more likely to want to be successful.”
Young puts it this way: “These individuals may not have family to come alongside of them. And I think we have to become the family of these people.”
“Hopefully that’s what we do here, is we have people here who will be that connection,” Fletcher says. “We can’t just hand out money hand over fist. That’s not feasible, and it doesn’t help. It enables.”
Fletcher is joined in the effort by Assistant Director Kathi Robison, whose salary is funded by Harmony Free Will Baptist Church. Other churches in the community provide support for the center, but Young says more money and volunteers are needed.
“What I’m trying to get pastors to realize is this: When they come off the street into your church and they say, ‘We need help,’ and … you just say, ‘Well, let’s just pay their electric bill,’ all you’ve done is put a Band-Aid on it,” Young says. An alternative approach is for churches to provide budgetary support for Carter Compassion Center and refer those in need to that resource hub. He believes this would give pastors and churches some relief while benefitting those in need.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY
Building such cooperative relationships within the community is considered key to the center’s future success in lifting people out of poverty. Young says he hopes nonprofits, other agencies, and churches would inform the center about available resources. “I’d love for every church that’s doing something to tell us what they’re doing,” he says. Knowing what resources are available will help with creating plans, he says, but it will also help different providers know what others are doing.
“We want to collaborate with nonprofits, with churches, with state agencies,” says Sue Hart, program manager. “That’s the goal, not to compete. I think a lot of people think we’re out to compete for funding. We’re not out to compete for funding.”
Nonetheless, Carter Compassion Center’s top needs are money, volunteers, and mentors, whom Hart describes as “coaches.”
“A mentor’s role is to coach someone and to show that they care. It can be done by anybody,” she says. “It’s about making a connection with that person and helping them along. They don’t need to know a lot about what the next steps are, because part of our process includes creating an action plan,” which is the role of the director and assistant director.
“An action plan launches that relationship and allows that mentor/coach to make a phone call and see how the person’s doing and encourage them to continue,” Hart says. “It’s just having somebody there to care and be a friend through the process.”
“Playing the role of family,” Young adds.
CARTER COMPASSION CENTER
Opened Doors: 2022
Goal: For every client to be coached by a mentor through an individualized action plan created with our clients to enable them to educate, empower, and equip themselves to achieve self-sufficiency.
First Year: Assisted more than 160 people
Funding Sources: Grants, churches, individuals, and some public money
Greatest Needs: Financial, mentors, volunteers, grant writers
Wants Community to Know: The center is available to others for meetings, support groups, and training
Address: 500 US-19E Elizabethton, TN 37643
Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday