By LORELEI GOFF
Special to the H&T
Nancy Kavanaugh likes to pay it forward, so much so that she founded a tribe of like-minded “cronies,” as she calls them, to do just that. Known as the Wild Women of Jonesborough, they have raised more than $10,000 for the community since the group’s founding just over a year ago. Their latest endeavor enabled 45 students from Jonesborough Middle School, all from families facing financial challenges this holiday season, to go on a shopping trip for much needed clothing.
After successful fundraisers to support the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre and federal employees who worked unpaid during last December’s government shut down, Kavanaugh wanted to do something to help school children. She at first thought perhaps the Wild Women could help provide school lunches to students who needed help and contacted Jonesborough Middle School Principal Brandon McKee. That need, McKee said, was already covered.
“The school has tremendous support from Brightridge and Second Harvest to make sure that the children are fed,” said Kavanaugh, who moved to Jonesborough from Lockheed in Atlanta in 2000. “They have a big food pantry at the school so children can come and pick up lunch foods.”
McKee directed her instead to school counselor Clarinda Whitson.
“Clarinda said, ‘I have students who have never had a new pair of shoes, who have never had a new article of clothing. Some of them don’t know what sizes they wear,’” Kavanaugh said. “My heart sank when I heard that. I have so much compared to these children.”
Whitson told her she’d like to have $1,000 to take 10 children shopping.
“I said to myself, ‘I know we can do better than $1,000,’” Kavanaugh confided with a twinkle in her eye.
She set a goal of $2,000 to get 20 students $100 gift cards and began contacting her tribe of Wild Women and others in the community to begin the fundraising. As donations began coming in, Kavanaugh reached out to the Community Chest to ask if Wild Women of Jonesborough could operate under their 501-C3 status for charitable gifts. The organization said yes and also agreed to match 25% of Kavanaugh’s $2,000 goal, raising the total to $2,500.
Then Kavanaugh received a note from a man at Grace Meadows Church by the name of Will Easler that left her astonished. The church had heard about the fundraiser, donated $2,000 and, saying the Community Chest doesn’t have much money to operate, also covered the $500 matching grant, bringing the total to $4,500. Kavanaugh, who doesn’t attend church herself but says she has a deep faith in God, still doesn’t know how Easler and the church learned about the fundraiser, but the “how” didn’t make any difference to school counselor Clarinda Whitson.
“After I recovered from the surprise and said a few thank you prayers, I called Clarinda,” Kavanaugh said. “That was so amazing because when I told her about the Grace Meadows’ donation, she burst into tears and said, ‘Oh my goodness! This is a gift from God! I have got my list of children I should consider and I have 45 children on that list!’”
Since then, at least an additional $200 has been raised by the Wild Women and First Baptist Church in Downtown Jonesborough also made a donation. On Dec. 16 and 17, 45 students boarded buses for a shopping field trip at the Mall at Johnson City. That also covered the cost of buying lunch for each of them at the food court.
“They are so excited!” Whitson said as they boarded the bus at the middle school. “I’m so excited! I got even more excited when I gave the permission slips out to the kids and explained what we were doing and they lit up. I’ve had kids hug me and be in tears, thanking me.”
Each student had to purchase some needed clothing items for themselves but were then free to use the remainder as they wished. Whitson said many wanted to purchase gifts for family members.
Kavanaugh, who seems to radiate perpetual joy and enthusiasm, hopes the experience will also help the children see beyond the limitations of their present financial circumstances to expand their horizons and have something to work towards. She says by having $100 to spend, they are learning what money is and how to make choices.
The field trip offered many opportunities to learn an assortment of basic life skills as Whitson, McKee, Kavanaugh and other chaperones embarked on a fun-filled day with the students. Among the lessons were learning good shopping and fitting room etiquette, how to handle merchandise and paying for purchases with both cards and cash. Checking out was a new and, for a few, intimidating experience at first, but all soon became comfortable with the process and were shopping like old pros in no time. In the midst of the fun and excitement, many of them seemed surprised at the prices and how quickly they could reach their budget limit, prompting some to rethink their choices. One fifth-grade girl said she learned about the need to budget wisely and prioritize while shopping
“It’s really complicated because I don’t really know how much things cost because my mom and dad usually pay for everything,” she explained. “Now I’m using my own money and it’s so complicated. I think I’m going to buy one thing here and after I get out of this store I’ll see how much I have left. I’m going to look for low prices.”
Wild Woman Yvonne Buford, who served as a chaperone, described the day as high energy, fun-filled and rewarding, saying she enjoyed “the opportunity to continue to work with children, which is what I do, children and the homeless.”
The students also enjoyed the experience.
One student said, “It’s been fun. I went shopping and I bought a pair of pants and a coat. After we eat, I’m going to go get more things.”
“It’s really fun to be able to get what I want to get and make sure it fits me,” said another sixth grader.
McKee seemed as happy and grateful as his students.
“The kids absolutely loved it because some of them have never been to the mall,” he said. “They’ve never been shopping. They’ve never had the actual experience of having to check out and figure out what they need to do to purchase their items. Plus, it’s just the whole meaning of Christmas. It means a lot that a lot of people in the town of Jonesborough came together to support our students like this. It’s the real meaning of the season, to give and to see them light up. It’s all about the kids.”
Kavanaugh, without whom the event would never have happened, was barely able to conceal the depth of her emotions behind misty eyes as she chatted with students at the start of the day. But although she acknowledges being the de facto chieftess of her tribe of Wild Women, she sees herself more as a vessel of the group’s mission to support the community.
“Collectively, small amounts of money make a big pot of money,” she said. “That’s the whole idea.”
When asked what makes her a Wild Woman, she broke into a broad grin, eyes twinkling and said, “You’re a wild woman too! We speak our peace. I think of us as an immigrant community of elders. The immigrants in the late 19th, early 20th century came as young people, as children from someplace else. Most all of us have retired here to Jonesborough from somewhere else in search of another life. And so I think of us as immigrant women building a community here and making an impression, bringing our talents.
“There are women who are retired school superintendents, school principals, teachers. There are people who have headed national organizations, have worked worked all over the world, who have run legal offices, who are internationally known storytellers. But we’re all — bottom line — women. It’s that community that brings us together and there’s more power when you put 50 women together versus one woman alone. So that’s what makes a wild woman.”
Although many of the Wild Women are retired, Kavanaugh said it’s not a requirement for membership in the tribe. For more information about Wild Women of Jonesborough, or to make a donation, contact Nancy Kavanaugh at [email protected]