Wildfire relief

Trio of Farragut Rotarians extend helping hand to Sevier Co. victims

Already having strong ties with businesses and schools in Sevier County and Gatlinburg, Alex Barnwell was in a position to help the evacuation effort as the devastating wildfires spread quickly during Thanksgiving week.

An insurance salesman and member of The Rotary Club of Farragut, “I’ve got a lot of friends and clients there because that’s one of my areas. I was in downtown Gatlinburg, at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School when they started evacuating the school,” Barnwell said. “So I knew it was going to be bad.

“And so when I was back listening to the news I just started texting people and trying to call them and making sure people were alright and getting out of there and that kind of thing,” he added.

Barnwell joined fellow RCF members Fred Martin and Amanda DeBord who volunteered their time to aid the relief effort.

With all three serving at Boyd’s Bear relief distribution center in Pigeon Forge, “I also did some little stuff on my own. … Did some things at some of the schools,” Barnwell said about his weekly trips to the area “since early December” to aid in relief efforts.

Barnwell was especially familiar with Pi Beta Phi Elementary.

“At that school there were 94 families that basically were homeless after that fire and 131 students affected out of 509 at the school,” Barnwell said. “They had to move out of that [school]. It got slightly damaged. A lot of smoke damage.”

With Pi Beta Phi moved to “the old Pittman Center,” Barnwell said he “got a hold of an organization I deal a lot with www.donorschoose.org/, and got them to fund several school projects to help them get that school ready.”

Still keeping up with what’s needed, “I go back and I check in with Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, I go there quite a bit to see what they need,” Barnwell said. “And to Pi Beta Phi, I check in there about every week and see what they need.

“With some of my friends in Sevier County we went over there and did some clean-up at some houses, things like that for several days,” he added.

DeBord said she was proud to have her son, 14-year-old Joel Gilbert, alongside her while assisting wildfire victim families at Boyd’s Bear.

“I think it was good to take my son,” she said. “Anytime you can take your kid to see how fortunate you are, I think it helps them get a better perspective.”

As for the shoppers, “You could tell they were really thankful for the most part,” DeBord said. “There was one lady, in particular I remember, she was a truck driver and she lost her house. She told me she was a single lady living in her truck.

“She said she just wasn’t used to getting handouts. … I encouraged her to take more,” DeBord added.

As for children, “several kids got new bicycles,” DeBord said.

Also stocking shelves, Martin said he volunteered on two separate days “for about four hours each.”

One of those days Martin worked alongside his daughter, Macy Martin, “which was a nice experience,” he said.

“The whole thing was eye-opening, just the number of people needing help,” Martin said.

However, Martin also pointed out “the enormity of material and stuff that had been donated … truckloads.”