By Jeff Keeling
Travis Dillard gets around. He does much good work during his travels. Churches, schools, non-profits and even municipalities benefit greatly from the work he and fellow crew members complete. And each night – because he doesn’t have a choice right now – Dillard eats dinner in the same room, takes some relaxation and beds down in a small room with the door locked from the outside.
Monday, the Bristol, Va. native huddled with Johnson City Parks and Recreation supervisor Dave Yontz, pencil in hand, poring over plans for a 10-foot-wide footbridge at Jacob’s Nature Park.
In the coming weeks, Dillard and company will work with Parks and Rec crews to complete that bridge. Their work will save taxpayers thousands of dollars and make Johnson City’s newest park easier to access for visitors.
Dillard and his compatriots are serving sentences at the Tennessee Department of Correction’s Carter County Work Camp. For years now, crews from the facility outside Roan Mountain have completed important projects. Dillard told me Monday he has 30 years’ experience building custom houses “on the outside.” A number of fellow inmates are similarly skilled.
The Sinking Creek crew’s TDOC supervisor told me the camp runs four or five crews, including two that work full-time on projects for the Town of Jonesborough and the City of Elizabethton, respectively. Impressed by the fact that these guys choose to toe the line sufficiently to earn the privilege of spending their days out in our communities, and by that choice perform work that benefits us all, I wanted to know more.
I called Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe, and a 10-minute phone conversation left me even more impressed – with the work camp, its inmates, and the beautiful reality that difficult circumstances don’t have to prevent human beings from interacting peaceably, developing relationships and breaking bread together.
Six or seven years ago, a work crew came and completed a project for the town, Wolfe told me. A homebuilder himself, Wolfe was so impressed with the work and the workers, he reached out to State Sen. Ron Ramsey to ask whether Jonesborough might be able to utilize crews in the future. What the little town with a limited budget got was a full-time crew.
Wolfe rattled off a list of projects completed (sometimes with the aid of paid subcontractors for electrical and other specialized work) by the crews: the basement of the new senior center; the McKinney Center renovation; restoration of the Chuckey Train Depot; demolition of the Jackson Theatre’s interior, with refurbishment and rehabilitation pending.
Master masons, master carpenters, concrete finishers and other skilled men have come through during the years, Wolfe said. The town feeds the crews each day, and invites them to its annual Christmas party. “They’re part of the family,” Wolfe said.
Our society is riven by division in far too many settings. To write off incarcerated men and want nothing to do with them is easy enough. Yet consider the good the work crew members – flawed people, just like you and I are – have accomplished and will accomplish.
And consider this message from a Jay Curtis, posted two years ago Friday on the camp’s Facebook page: “New Salem (church) had an awesome visit with 8 men. We had 1 hour of great fellowship. And some pretty good singing – We go to try & bless them & I got the blessing. Go God!”