Sharp cracks of lightning frightened the birds off their perches and winds scrambled the wailing trees about our hometown, as summer continued to its relentless arrival on Friday.
It is easy to lose track of old friends, when you leave your regular routine, but given time we bump into them at stores, churches, or funerals. My encounter with Don and Audrey Jones happened at Walmart. I’ve known them from our mutual association with Newport Kiwanis down through the decades.
As the new director there, she invited me out to Sunset Gap where last Wednesday, arriving with the drizzle and overcast sky, I found people who truly are making America Great Again by helping to feed the hungry. Cars had been lined up since 6 a.m., when Audrey arrived.
It was Sunset Gap Food Pantry Day, something the Gap has been doing for years thanks to its many partners such as Second Harvest. While Audrey looked after things, Don, wearing his perennial UT orange shirt, sat in a dark green rocker on the Gap’s elevated porch.
The summer work programs had already brought in 50 or more youth from Zeeland, Michigan, the Vertigo Youth. They have been doing home repairs on at least five houses. This is an admirable program that now focuses on ramps and porches used as entrances for elderly and handicapped.
Last year the Gap was handling about 500 visits per month for the food pantry handout. Audrey said this has ballooned to 1,000. “The food lasts them a couple of weeks but less with children.”
She said that a cutback in the supplemental food program (SNAP)—“Food Stamps”—has accelerated the need for food. And here I thought, in America, we all had plenty. The Gap is hampered by lack of space, not enough volunteers, and much needed improvements to the road, which is a private way.
Let me remind you about Audrey, daughter of Charlie and Josephine Blanchard of Bridgeport. You might know her siblings: Norma Jean Owenby, Sandra Fleming, Linda Wise, and William “Mo” Blanchard. They live in Newport, except Sandra in North Carolina.
Audrey is younger than me and looks a lot younger than Don. She went to Mannings Chapel two-room school, then Parrottsville and Bridgeport before graduating from Cocke County High School in 1968. She is not one to ever rest and had a series of jobs such as a Jack’s Drive In for Jim Bush; with Annette Mason at the Holiday Inn; and as a typesetter with the Cocke County Banner, when it started in 1970.
She met Don at Minnis Drug Store. He went on to have a 35-year career with the Newport Housing Authority retiring about 10 years ago. He struggles with diabetes but still stays in tune helping at the Gap.
By 1974, she joined President Bill Agee at National Bank of Newport. In the bookkeeping department she worked alongside Elyane Trent, Pat Gardner, Marlene Cody, Mary Esther Williams and many others you know. She finally retired from the bank in 2013.
She and Don have two children: Donna Jones, a music teacher at Cosby High School and longtime Key Club sponsor; and Trey Jones, retired US Marine. He operates Jones & Sons Landscaping and lawn care business here. There are two grandsons: Peyton, 6, and Charlie, 9, students at Newport Grammar School.
Although working and raising children and helping with grandchildren, Don and Audrey always made time for Newport Kiwanis. Audrey eventually became a Lt. Governor in the K-T Division 5. She is local club historian. Kiwanian Sam Moscato serves on the Sunset Gap board with Audrey, who is executive director.
The former director, Karen Hekel, whose husband Jim was a former Plain Talk managing editor until he died, is now with Heartland Services, a group home operator in Newport.
By Sept. 2018, Audrey became Sunset Gap director. As I sat and talked with the Joneses on the high porch near Bogard, I couldn’t help but remember Bob Davis. He was director in the 1970s.
Alan Massey is the maintenance man there. Elaine Gunter helps in the office and coordinates the food pantry. And, of course, our old friends Betty and Tootie still operate the Sunset Gap Thrift Store.
Those who have a vehicle or friends with a vehicle line up for food. The disabled only have to appear once to signup and designate a person who can get the food box for them. Audrey said that at least 150 elderly and handicapped cannot get to the Gap so the volunteers serve hot meals to them. That is what is great about Cocke County. It has always been great at helping others.
‘I love to give back. God put me here for a reason,” she said. As a reminder, Sunset Gap is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA, and tied closely via covenant to the Holston and East Tennessee Presbyteries.
She also likes teaching the visiting summer youth country cooking. The Gap can always use more volunteers to bolster the eight or nine who show up every Wednesday morning for the food pantry.
What a joy it gives her and others at the Gap to see the four out-of-state brothers arrive every year to pick a project and do it. Tourism Director Linda Lewanski also drops by to help visiting students learn more about Cocke County.
The food pantry winds down at noon. Hundreds of boxes of vegetables, fresh fruit (strawberries last week), USDA meats, breads, have disappeared. The line continues so that at 11:30 a.m. the last car’s driver in line is handed a stick with an orange tag denoting that no one else can get in line that day.
Wait until next Wednesday; stretch those beans and cornbread. God bless the Gap.