By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Jonesborough resident Nancy Kavanaugh was standing over her ironing board working the wrinkles out of some linen napkins when an idea hit her. It was the fall of 2018, and the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre was preparing to debut a new play called the Wild Women of Winedale.
“I thought, you know, I bet I could get a group of women together to be sponsors of that show,” Kavanaugh recalled. “I needed $1,500.”
So Kavanaugh put out the call to other women in the community to raise the money needed to sponsor the play. She was hoping she could convince 14 other women to contribute $100, but she got a bit more than she bargained for.
“Before I knew it, I had almost $4,000,” Kavanaugh said with a laugh. “I said, “Oh my gosh, I’d better go tell somebody about this, or I’m going to be under the jail.’ ”
In the end, the JRT was thrilled to receive $4,000, and Kavanaugh began thinking of ways to harness her new loosely affiliated group into a force for good in the community. Taking a cue from the show they sponsored, Kavanaugh dubbed the group the Wild Women of Jonesborough.
There are no regularly scheduled meetings, no dues, no board of directors, no minutes and very little in the way of face-to-face interaction. “I’m an organization of one, and everyone is quite happy to leave it like that,” Kavanaugh said.
Following the initial success of sponsoring the play, Kavanaugh put out a call to action again in December of 2018 when a government shutdown left TSA and FAA personnel at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport struggling to pay for basic necessities. Once again, the money poured in and Kavanaugh was able to purchase a gift card for every federal employee at the airport affected by the shutdown.
When the JRT was in the process of moving all of its costumes to a new storage facility at Persimmon Ridge Park, Kavanaugh put out the call again and soon had over 1,000 donated hangers on her porch to be delivered to the new facility.
Next came the sponsorship of an annual art show at the McKinney Center that benefits the Women’s Fund of East Tennessee, an organization dedicated to the cause of transforming the lives of low-income women and girls in our region. The group has made a habit of sponsoring the art show, and has also given money to help fund Jonesborough’s StoryTown Radio Show.
As the holidays approached in 2019, Kavanaugh reached out to Jonesborough Middle School to find out whether it might be helpful for the Wild Women to raise money to ensure every kid was able to afford lunch. When she found out funds were already in place for that, she learned of another need that brought her to tears.
Clarinda Whitson, a school counselor at Jonesborough Middle, told Kavanaugh that several students at the school were in need of new clothing. Whitson said many of them had never been able to go shopping for new clothes or shoes and asked if the Wild Women might be able to secure $100 gift cards for 15 students at the school.
“I told her we could do better than that,” Kavanaugh said.
The goal was to purchase gift cards for 50 children at the school, which carried a lofty price tag of just over $5,000. Kavanaugh started by sending an email out to all the Wild Women letting them know about the need, and she also approached Jonesborough’s Community Chest, which was able to contribute $500.
In addition to the contributions made by the Community Chest and the Wild Women, word spread to Grace Meadows Church, which donated $2,500 to purchase gift cards and also agreed to pay the service charges on all the cards.
With so much support, it wasn’t long before Kavanaugh was able to march into Wal-Mart and buy all 50 of those gift cards.
“That clogged up the customer service area for a while,” she said with a laugh.
Right before Christmas of 2019, Whitson and JMS principal Brandon McKee were able to bring all 50 students to the Mall at Johnson City to buy new clothes and shoes. The project was so successful that the Wild Women did it again last Christmas, albeit in a different format due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The wonderful part of it was that the teachers knew who their students were who were in need,” Kavanaugh said. “They teachers bought all these gifts for the children with this money, wrapped the gifts and took the gifts to these children’s homes for Christmas.”
What started as a shot in the dark has turned into an endeavor that routinely spreads the light of love and hope throughout the community. All told, the group has raised over $20,000 that has been put to good use in Jonesborough.
Kavanaugh is the face of the Wild Women of Jonesborough, but she can’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude every time she puts out the call and her unseen group rises to the occasion.
“My mother, her birthday is today, she would be 106,” Kavanaugh said. “My mother’s ghost is over my shoulder saying, ‘Now, Nancy, you write thank-you notes to everybody.’”