By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Editor’s Note: The Coalition for Kids will be holding its annual $10,000 Reverse Raffle Tailgate Party on Aug. 29. The event will take place from 6-9 p.m. at the Johnson City Country Club and will also feature live and silent auctions. To purchase raffle tickets, visit: www.coalitionforkids.org/tailgate/.
Randy Hensley has fond memories of his childhood in Mountain City.
When school was out, Hensley was more often than not on his bicycle exploring the world with friends. Children were free-range in those days, and there was no reason not to be – everyone in the community knew everyone else. People were enmeshed with their neighbors in a way that created a natural safety net for children in the community.
As Hensley sat behind his desk at Coalition for Kids last week, he reflected on just how thin that support system has become in today’s society. Many children in our communities navigate each day wondering whether their basic needs will be met, and that makes it hard for those youngsters to focus on their schoolwork, which ultimately hurts their chances of developing into successful adults.
Strengthening that sagging support system was the reason behind the formation of Coalition for Kids in 1998. Hensley has been the executive director of the non-profit since it began serving 25 kids at one site, and he said working to provide kids with the basics they need to thrive keeps him energized.
“When I talk about kids and the lack of support and lack of support systems in their lives, we become a replacement family. I call us aunts and uncles.” Hensley said. “Data says 83 percent of my families earn less than $20,000 a year, and 42 percent of my families earn less than $10,000 a year. It wouldn’t take but a flat tire to stop them from being able to survive.”
The scope of Coalition for Kids has certainly changed in the two decades since it was founded. The program now serves over 300 low-income, at-risk kids each day at multiple sites across Johnson City. Ten buses transport kids from each school in the Johnson City Schools system to multiple sites across the city where trained staff members are waiting to provide each kid with a snack, tutoring, dinner, sports and other recreation activities before transporting them home.
The logistics have changed as the organization has grown, but the services are still rooted in Hensley’s upbringing.
“I started it based on the idea of growing up in Mountain City,” Hensley said. “I needed somewhere to go, and when I went to granny and papaw’s house, I got off the bus, I got a snack, and then I had to do my homework. Then we got to eat supper, and then I got to go play.”
So that is what Hensley and his staff strive to provide for the kids who come into their program each day, and the simple formula has proven successful. Coalition for Kids now has a budget of just over $1.5 million a year, and $800,000 of that comes through fundraising. That money allows Hensley and his staff to provide their holistic, faith-based services to children regardless of income.
“If they (get) free lunch at school, they’re free here,” Hensley said. “So it doesn’t cost anything.”
Thanks to an emerging partnership with the new Center for Rural Health Research at ETSU, Hensley expects to be able to record some hard data showing the positive impact his organization is having on kids, their families and the community at large. That data will be useful in securing funding from donors in the future.
But Hensley doesn’t need data to know the positive impact being made by Coalition for Kids. He sees it first-hand and hears it in stories relayed to him by staff members at various sites. There was the story of the mother who broke down in tears because her life was falling apart. She had no money for dinner, so the staff let her in, fed her and transformed her life in the process through an act of kindness.
Hensley remembers getting a visit from a high school senior who fought through homelessness and earned a college cheerleading scholarship. As a first-grader, he took part in a free dance class Gay Whitt offered once a week at the Coalition for Kids. Those early lessons eventually led to the scholarship and a degree from Milligan College.
When the young man returned to visit, Hensley recalls him saying, “Randy, you all aren’t my home away from home. You are my home because I didn’t have one.”