Possumtown Outreach helps TNs poorest county


Hancock County Mayor Greg Marion, left, listens as Randy Hildebrant, United Methodist Church missionary to Hancock County, describes the poverty in the Northeastern Tennessee county. The two traveled to Wilson County Thursday to personally thank the people here, specifically Possumtown Outreach, for being a lifeline to the many families in need there.

ZACK OWENSBY / The Wilson Post

By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post

It was a bit of a reunion of old friends, but held at a different venue than usual.

The relationship started in 1977 after a devastating flood that crippled the community, often referred to as the poorest county in the state.

That was the first time Possumtown’s Jerry McFarland flew in by helicopter to help the residents of Hancock County. He met a young man by the name of Greg Marion by giving him errands to run for emergency supplies.

That same man came to Wilson County Thursday, this time as county mayor, to personally thank the donors who have given food, clothes, and most importantly, a little bit of hope to the residents in the impoverished community.

But specifically, their praises of gratitude were directed at Possumtown Outreach and the volunteers who have donated their time and goods for the past 30 years.

Possumtown Outreach was started by McFarland and Dr. Roger McKinney, among others, who now continue to carry on the relief, such as business owner Danny Dillon, Tommy and Shirley Strong and Immanuel Baptist Church in Lebanon.

“I believe strongly in the saying ‘Give a man a fish, feed him today; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime,’” Marion said. “But when all the fish run out, we call Wilson County.”

And the fish in Hancock County are few and far between.

Often referred to as the poorest county in Tennessee, the average income for a family of four is $15,000 a year, manufacturing jobs have been cut from 500 to 25 in the past 10 years, and the number of farmers has dropped more than 50 percent, as well.

To say the stream has dried up is an understatement.

Actually, the fourth cleanest stream in the nation flows through the county, running pure because they have no industry to pollute it, showing how a positive in Hancock County often reflects a negative.

People are fleeing the county in droves to find work; population has dropped from 15,000 to 6,900 the past several decades, during a time in which every other Tennessee county has at least doubled, Marion said.

“Some of the older residents are storing food; beans, canned goods, (because of the struggling economy), planning for another depression they think is coming,” said Randy Hildebrant, a missionary dispatched to Hancock from the United Methodist Church.

They live in a different world of sorts, where hard work is the norm, not the exception, “stack cakes” are on every kitchen counter, and moonshine stills can still be found if so inclined.

Part of the reason for the poverty is the fact that Hancock County is “transportationally challenged,” as Marion said. There is not a four-lane road in the county, a single stoplight in Sneedville, the county’s most impoverished and central city, and 16-wheel trucks simply cannot make the switchback turns through the Appalachian Mountain passes to get to the communities without literally getting stuck.

“There is nowhere in the county where I can buy clothes, or shoes,” Marion said. “I have to go out of county to buy those things.”

And with broken promises by the past four governors to help get better roads in the county, it’s left leaders and residents alike without much hope.

So when Possumtown Outreach comes into town, it’s a blessing to everyone involved.

In 2009, there were 262 families helped by donations from Wilson County in the form of food, clothing, shoes and more, even plans to give prom dresses to high school girls there who would not have them otherwise.

This past Christmas alone, 41 percent of the families in the community were helped with their Christmas needs, Marion said, with donations even coming from students at Friendship Christian School among others.

Tommy and Shirley Strong, members of Immanuel Baptist Church, traveled to Sneedville for the first time several years ago. They committed to helping 10 families on their own, but when they made their offer, a local principal said they had 50 families that were in desperate need of help.

“When Tommy said we’d do it, I just about had a heart attack,” Shirley said laughing. “I was thinking ‘how are we going to help 50?’ knowing that we were expecting 10.”

But when they got back to Lebanon, they shared the story with the congregation and were able to get volunteers to accept nearly all of them before she walked in the door, Strong said.

“We’re very thankful to everybody who has helped from Wilson County,” Marion said. “We’ve got 10,000 hugs to give out.”

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at zowensby@wilsonpost.com.