(TNS) — One day not long after the Gatlinburg wildfires last year, Roy Helton was approached by a little girl named Laura who handed him an envelope of cash.
"She said, 'I convinced my mom and dad to return all our Christmas presents and here's the money from that,' " Helton said. "It was that kind of thing that I saw several times a day for the first six weeks."
There was the mother and daughter from South Carolina who spent nine days going on shopping trips, spending between $800 and $1,500 per day on a list of needs for fire victims.
And the third-grade students from Kentucky who wrote cards for the residents of Gatlinburg, each card containing $5.
Helton observed it all through his role as manager of the Boyd's Bears distribution center in Pigeon Forge, where fire victims came to collect supplies for more than two months.
In the year since the fires burned through more than 17,000 acres, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying more than 2,500 structures, such stories of kindness and generosity have abounded.
"I knew that because of the generations that have been coming here that people loved Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains and Sevier County, but I didn’t realize it was going to be as outreaching as it was," said Mark Adams, president and CEO of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.
"We had well wishes from Puerto Rico and California, all across the country people wanting to know how they could assist us."
Giving by the numbers
In all, more than $16 million in private monetary donations came in after the November wildfires, not counting other millions of dollars in state and federal aid.
Between $4 million and $5 million worth of donations were collected at the Boyd's Bears distribution center and helped between 3,000 and 5,000 fire victims over 2½ months.
About $3.5 million has been raised for the new nonprofit Mountain Tough, including a $3 million donation from Dolly Parton's charitable organization, the Dollywood Foundation.
That's on top of the $9 million the foundation distributed directly to fire victims via monthly checks to 900 people whose primary residences were lost in the fires.
Other organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the East Tennessee Foundation, also collected funds in the aftermath of the fires, much of which has gone to help with small-business recovery.
"I think what it did was give the community and the county and the city hope," Adams said. "And it wasn’t just a monetary thing; so many volunteers gave of their time, and that was invaluable as well."
A total of 24,000 people volunteered through Volunteer East Tennessee, the lead volunteer group in the aftermath of the fires.
The giving hasn't been without its complications. In September, five people were accused of scheming to defraud the My People Fund, making off with $12,000 before their plot was foiled by police.
Some residents also complained about the pace of getting Mountain Tough started last spring, though an expert said it can take months and sometimes up to a year for such an organization to get set up.
Mountain Tough 'still working through the process'
Since the organization opened its doors in July, it has taken on about 425 client cases, said Executive Director Barbara Joines, who took over in the job in October after the first director, Janice Hendrix, abruptly resigned.
The effort is modeled after the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team, which formed in the aftermath of devastating wildfires in Texas in 2011 and is still around today.
About $2 million of the $3.5 million raised will be spent on case management and an additional $1 million on cleanup and debris removal at home sites.
A small amount also will be spent on home reconstruction through a partnership with Johnson City-based Appalachia Service Project, which is working to construct an initial 25 homes for the uninsured and underinsured in Sevier County.
About $350,000 of the case management money has been spent so far, according to Joines. That includes short-term and immediate needs like helping fire victims with transportation needs, such as car payments; mortgages or rent; and buying medicine or supplies.
About 20 sites have already been identified for cleanup, the deadline for which the city recently extended to the end of December, and Mountain Tough is estimating that about 50 more will be identified for help through the process.
Joines, who had a 30-year career at the Dollywood Foundation before coming to Mountain Tough, said she doesn't see an end date in sight right now for the new organization.
"We're still working through the process for the clients that we have," she said, while also encouraging those who haven't sought out Mountain Tough yet to do so. "About half of (the cases) are still open. We're working with them on their goals and what they’re trying to achieve in the recovery process. It's still something that’s new for us, so it's hard to say how long it will take."
Some needs, like hot meals and household items, have dwindled
Meanwhile, other recovery efforts have scaled back.
The American Red Cross, for example, was operating three shelters and served more than 16,000 meals in the immediate aftermath of the fires.
The organization raised $1.6 million in relief efforts, about $1.5 million of which had been spent or allocated by early November, according to Bob Wallace, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Memphis. They plan to spend all the money by mid-December.
Then there are local efforts by people like Sheri Robinson, a Knoxville resident who helped collect donations for fire victims after she and her husband fled a rental cabin they were staying in on the night of the fires.
Robinson, who began collecting furniture, toiletries and household items in her home in March and distributing them to victims, said she didn't have an estimate for how many items she collected or how many people they went to.
At one point, she was making weekly trips to a Gatlinburg church to deliver the goods.
"When I started I certainly didn’t have any idea of the generosity of people, of strangers, absolute strangers, and I have been blessed to make some new friendships through that process," Robinson said.
"I feel like I've gained a lot of friendships and certainly my faith in people has been boosted. I wouldn't say restored because I have a lot of faith in people, but it certainly has been boosted."
Other needs, such as furniture and help with rebuilding, remain.
Volunteer East Tennessee, the main organizer of volunteer efforts, utilized 24,000 volunteers to complete about 135,000 hours of work between December and May, mostly in distribution centers and with debris removal.
The organization estimates that work to be worth more than $3.1 million. And there's still more to do, particularly when it comes to rebuilding efforts, said Regional Director Melanie Vincent.
"I would say a good example of the need that remains is among people who decide to rebuild on their own and then they run out of money," Vincent said. "Volunteers have been helping to paint, to help lay flooring and (perform) other skills that can be taught."
She said she was surprised in the aftermath of the fires at the number of people driving from across the country and Canada "just to volunteer and plug in wherever they were needed."
One of those places was the Boyd's Bears distribution center, which closed in February after more than two months of distributing food, clothing, furniture, medication and other items to thousands of fire victims.
At its busiest, the center run by the Pigeon Forge Rotary Club served more than 3,200 fire victims in a single day in mid-December and was staffed by over 500 volunteers. Between 12 and 15 tractor-trailer loads of items were coming in each day.
At the end, leftover items — and there weren't many — were donated to regional charities and public entities such as Sevier County Schools and a local food ministry.
Helton, who also serves on the board of Mountain Tough, said needs remain but are different. Now that homes are being rebuilt, many people are in need of new furniture.
"We’re building these homes, and these people have nothing," he said. "The ones we’re helping, they’re either uninsured or underinsured and they don’t have enough to meet their needs. That’s why we’re out there doing the things we do."
Gatlinburg charity relief efforts by the numbers
©2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Visit the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) at www.knoxnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.