“When they’re living in poverty… they’re already missing out on a lot of opportunities,” says Norma Tremblay, executive director of Rogersville-based Somebody Loves Me, which serves nine East Tennessee counties. “We don’t want them to miss out on Christmas.”
Tremblay says the effort started 12 years ago, after she and her co-workers got involved with a Knoxville-based angel tree program.
“We started helping with the Knoxville angel tree to provide Christmas gifts for Head Start children in Hawkins County,” she says, “and we realized a few years later that even though the young children were getting gifts, those children who were 12 and over weren’t getting anything.”
So, they stepped up to start filling in the gap and provide gifts for the older kids, registering official nonprofit status in 2014 and expanding to also provide clothing and shoes starting in 2018 through a program called Clothing Our Children.
“We have community partnerships, and not only are we able to provide children who are in school – and that’s preschool all the way to high school – with shoes and clothing, we are also able to provide [help to] any family in need. If we have it, we give it – whether it be shoes, clothes, or household items.”
Quarterly “shopping” opportunities at the Rogersville warehouse allow families to pick out what they need.
“We’re like a thrift store that’s free,” she says, “but a lot of the items we have are brand new.”
This is the seventh year for the silent auction, Tremblay says – but there’s more pressure than usual, as they’ve had to pick up serving additional counties. They now serve Carter, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, and Washington counties.
Auction items at the Nov. 9 event will include gift baskets, restaurant meals, vacations, and such items, and there will be door prizes. The event is free to attend. The all-you-can-eat soup beans and cornbread dinner is $5 per person with drinks and desserts also for sale.
While hopeful they’ll receive help from local grant funding, they’re also looking for ways to cut costs. For example, by reducing the number of “wish” items provided to each child from three to one, or by setting up trees with tags for the kids at area businesses in hopes that the community will help buy the gifts.
Traditionally, each child – last year there were more than 650 – receives pajamas or a sweatsuit, underwear, socks, a game or toy, and their wish items.
The addition of a couple hundred more children, she says, will mean a need to get creative with funding this year – but Somebody Loves Me won’t let any of them go without.
Tremblay says one reason she’s so passionate about what she does is because she herself grew up in poverty. This charity effort – like her career in public service – is focused on helping others to overcome the challenges of poverty.
“I know what it’s like to wake up on Christmas morning to one little thing – and for no other reason than we didn’t have the money,” she says. “If we can help them, it gives them hope.”
She recalls times when, as a child, her community stepped in to help her struggling family. She says it meant the world to her.
One Christmas – when her stepfather was in the hospital with cancer and her mother had three young kids at home – members of a local church collected food and brought it all to them.
“The church showed up at our door with all that food,” she says. “It makes me want to cry to this day – and that was 40 years ago – to know that somebody cared.”
One year it was the local fire department that showed up on their porch with Christmas gifts.
“Those kinds of things just make you know that no matter how difficult things are or how horrible things may seem, there are people who care,” Tremblay says.
“Anything that we can do to motivate them, encourage them, and help them be successful – that’s our drive behind this and trying to remove some of those barriers and obstacles – the shoes, the clothes, even the toys at Christmas – so they can focus on a better life,” she says.
“This has been my dream. Doing what we’re doing has been my dream for 25 years, so we’re so blessed. My husband and I used to talk about being able to do things like this, and now we’re doing it – and it’s just amazing.”