Chuck Bales prepares fresh food for distribution at Morgan-Scott Project's headquarters in the Deer Lodge community on Friday, March 2, 2018. (Ben Garrett/IH)

The “sorting room.”

That’s what the staff of the Morgan-Scott Project call the back room at their facility on Old Deer Lodge Pike. There, items that will eventually wind up in the organization’s thrift store are sorted and priced. And, on Friday morning, there were two ladies busily doing just that — sorting and pricing.

Ella Smith, executive director of the 46-year-old faith-based organization, introduces the ladies, points out their work. Otherwise, the room — like much of the rest of the building — is quiet. You’d never guess that there is some serious shopping taking place just on the other side of the wall.

Until Smith opens the door.

Perhaps “controlled chaos” is the best way to describe it. Stepping into the Morgan-Scott Project thrift store is like stepping into a miniature version of Walmart on December 23. There are people everywhere. Dozens of shoppers are wandering through the merchandise, selecting from items like clothing, books and an assortment of other goods.

It’s “dollar bag day,” Smith explains. On Friday, customers can purchase as much stuff as they can fit into a bag for a single dollar. And, clearly, folks are turning out to take advantage of it.

Smith is proud of the thrift store. It generated $50,000 in net profits last year, she says, then adds, “Can you imagine some little something out here in the middle of nowhere clearing that much?”

It’s $50,000 that helps fund Morgan-Scott’s myriad projects, and it’s even more impressive when you consider the prices on the merchandise. Aside from dollar bag day, adult clothing sells for $1; children’s clothing for 50 cents. “And household items and other things are sold at very, very reduced prices,” Smith says.

As she wanders through the crowd of shoppers, it’s clear that Smith knows most of them — if not all of them — by face if not by name. There’s an Amish lady who’s filling a bag. “We have something special for you today,” Smith says, placing a hand on her shoulder. There’s a resident of Rugby who’s come for some magazines.

For Smith, this has become her life’s work. The long-time restaurant owner — she and her husband, Bill, owned Fireside Restaurant in Huntsville for many years — retired from that line of work, then she quickly went to work as a volunteer at Morgan-Scott Project before stepping into the executive director role in 2007.

“This is a job I never thought I would be doing,” she says. “I’ve always been involved in nonprofits but I never anticipated being the executive director of one.”

Stepping onto the front porch of the thrift store, Smith surveys the crowded parking lot. There’s literally no room for another vehicle; cars and pickup trucks are squeezed into every nook and cranny of the gravel lot. “It makes you wonder where they all come from, doesn’t it?” she says. And it does. Deer Lodge is about as far from nowhere as you can get in this modern era. Once a thriving town, it is these days a shadow of its former self. It’s 15 minutes from Sunbright and some 45 minutes from Oneida.

But here, in the vast emptiness of the former town, a ministry has risen up to serve the poor and under-privileged residents of Scott and Morgan counties.

Morgan-Scott Project executive director Ella Smith is pictured with volunteer George Smith at the organization's headquarters in Deer Lodge, Tenn., on Friday, March 8, 2018. (Ben Garrett/IH)

‘We are extremely busy’

The crowded thrift shop is just one aspect of Morgan-Scott’s operation on this Friday. On the other side of the building, a separate crew of workers and volunteers are busily unloading a truck. Box after cardboard box of perishable food items are being sorted and prepared for pickup. It’s called “bread day,” an opportunity for those who need the services of a food bank to pick up a box of something other than the standard non-perishable items. But, as Smith points out, it’s really much more than that.

Laid out on the tables are chicken breasts, hamburger, bananas and other produce, sweets . . . and, yes, loaf after loaf of bakery bread.

“On Fridays, we ask no questions,” Smith explains.

What she means is simply this: if you want food on this day, you’re going to get food. It’s a little different from the way Morgan-Scott operates its regular food bank. Boxes of non-perishable food can be picked up any day of the week, but the standard regulations apply. Those picking up the food have to show proof of income, identification, and can receive only one box every 30 days. There are government audits and inspections to answer to.

But Fridays are different. If you’re able to walk in the door, you’re going to get food.

On a typical Friday, between 50 and 80 families will be served, depending on the time of the month. Smith arrives at 6 a.m. on Fridays, and while numbers aren’t given out until 8 a.m., there are usually five-to-10 cars in the parking lot, waiting, when she arrives before dawn.

A little later in the morning, volunteers from First Methodist Church of Oak Ridge will meet a Second Harvest food truck at the Oak Ridge Walmart. An assortment of meat, bread, produce, deli items, vegetables and sweets are loaded onto a pickup truck and transported to Deer Lodge.

By 9:30 a.m., the number on top of the stack of placards is 44. Forty-three people have already picked up numbers, and will soon begin lining up for the food distribution. By 10:30 a.m., closer to the time for the food to be distributed, the number is north of 50. It’s a typical Friday at Morgan-Scott Project.

“Everyone talks about poor, sorry, lazy, good-for-nothing people, and we probably do serve some of those,” Smith says. “But a lot of our people are senior citizens, living on a fixed income. A lot of them are single ladies whose husbands have passed away and they’re left with $740 a month to live on.”

‘Accept them as they are’

Started in 1972 by United Methodist pastor Kenneth Phifer, who was pastor of the Sunbright and Rugby Road Methodist churches, and by Presbyterian minister Bob Butziger, who served as the organization’s first executive director, Morgan-Scott Project’s full name is “Morgan-Scott Project for Cooperative Christian Concerns.” Forty-six years later, the multi-denominational, faith-based approach still guides the organization in all that it does.

“We are a faith-based organization, but what we try to do is we try to preach with our actions,” says Smith. “My job is not a job. It’s a calling. You can’t just come out here and call this a job. You have to love people and accept them where they’re at and hope that what you do can enrich their lives in some way.”

On Morgan-Scott’s website is a scripture verse. It’s from the 13th chapter of Hebrews: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Perhaps that, as much as any other, can be described as a guiding philosophy for Morgan-Scott.

As it turns out, there is no shortage of ways to do good and share. The thrift store and the food distribution are just two of Morgan-Scott Project’s many programs. In all, the organization administers 11 programs out of its office, all of them focused on the poor and the under-served.

There’s an emergency aid program, which helps with utility bills, rent and similar expenses.

There’s an educational support program, which covers the cost of textbooks and transportation for adults who are headed back to school. “If you’re poor or low-income, you may have started at Roane State, used your FAFSA and dropped out,” says Smith. “You may decide to go back and you’ll make it the second time, but you have to pay your tuition that time and you just can’t afford the other expenses. That’s where we can help.”

There’s a home repair program, which pumps over $50,000 annually into needed home repairs for disabled senior citizens. There are already 16 volunteer work groups booked for 2018. There will be more than 30 by year’s end, and they’ll repair homes throughout Scott and Morgan counties — from Winfield to Oakdale. “We’re extremely proud of the work we do,” Smith says. “When you’re driving around the two counties, if you see a nice wheelchair ramp that’s built to code, that’s ours. And we’re proud of it.”

There are other programs, too. Like a gardening program that distributes free plants, seeds and fertilizer, a backpacks program, a Christmas program, a free medical clinic that is open one day each month at the Abner Ross Center in Deer Lodge. And still others.

Even as workers are managing the thrift store, and preparing food for distribution, the phone is constantly ringing. Scott and Morgan counties are among the poorest in Tennessee, and there are always needs; always ways to, as the Morgan-Scott Project puts it, “help others help themselves.”

Crystal Thompkins is on the receiving end of one of the phone calls, answering questions from an elderly lady who badly needs repair work in the kitchen of her home but can’t afford to hire a carpenter.

“We are extremely busy,” Smith says. “We get calls like this every day. And our goal is to serve everyone with an open heart and an open mind.”

Helping hands

It’s a busy day, but it’s also a good day. Smith shows off two checks that have arrived from religious organizations — donations that will help fund Morgan-Scott Project’s assorted programs.

“Our funding, at least 75 percent of it, comes from checks like these,” she says, “checks from churches and individuals all across the country. We do get some state grants for food and some for home repair, but most of it are private donations. We put over $100,000 a year into each of our two counties, yet you don’t hear too much about us. I’m very proud of that.”

Just about every Christian denomination is represented among the churches and faith-based organizations who contribute to Morgan-Scott Project. Individuals who have witnessed their work often give, as well.

“We get checks from all across the country from people who come here with work groups, individuals and churches that hear us speak when we go to conferences and are touched by what they hear and what we’re doing,” Smith says.

But with so many under-served residents in the two-county area covered by Morgan-Scott Project, there’s always room for more. No offer will be turned away.

Smith, who will be stepping away this year — not from the organization, but from her leadership role, insists that it isn’t about her. “I’m just the one who has shouted orders,” she says. Instead, there are many people to thank. George Taylor was named to the Morgan-Scott Project board of directors as Smith became the executive director in 2007 and was instrumental in jump-starting several of the organization’s programs. Tamia Bible did the organization’s books for years, “and taught me more than I ever wanted to know about accounting,” Smith says. Bob Wright helps with home repairs and provides two fully-furnished homes with utilities that are used to house work groups. Lee Crabtree hosts two work groups in his Scott County home each year. Smith’s sister, Phyllis Clowers, volunteered as an office assistant early on, and her husband, Junior, served as construction leader. Gary and Daisy Imman volunteer in multiple capacities, as do John Owens and Helen Coplas. Lori Brock’s parents took in work groups back in the ‘70s, when Morgan-Scott Project was just starting, and she has been on the organization’s staff for the past seven years, while her husband and son — Luther and Lucas — also work with the organization.

Those are a lot of hands on deck, but it takes a lot of help to accomplish the breadth of what Morgan-Scott Project’s programs encompass.

“I jokingly say we’re the program that can do it all,” Smith says. “We have the free medical clinic so we can birth you, and we have some shovels up there so we can bury you if we need to. And we can take care of anything in between. We have a lot of programs, but the bottom line is if you have a need and we can help, we’re going to help.”

This story is the March 2018 installment of Profiles of a 3 Star Community, presented by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.