The Mountain Tough Recovery Team is another step closer to helping hundreds of Sevier County wildfire victims.
The long-term recovery organization met Tuesday to train its case workers on how to counsel survivors.
A representative from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) led the training by reviewing everything from FEMA and Small Business Association loan assistance to the social and spiritual needs of victims.
"Whatever their needs are, whether they are financial, whether they're some form of counseling or a spiritual need, they would connect them to whatever resources are in the community to provide those services,” said Janice Hendrix, the newly hired executive director for the team.
The team has made a lot of progress in last few weeks. Leaders secured an office at 906 E. Parkway in Gatlinburg and, last week, hired five of their six total case workers.
“That was our first goal, to get that office established and get our people hired,” said Board of Directors President Ellen Wilhoit. “And then as of June 1st, we’re really hoping that we can start assisting our clients.”
With six case workers assisting as many as 900 families, they'll need to help the most vulnerable groups first.
Wilhoit said the team will first prioritize under-insured homeowners, single-parent families and elderly or disabled victims.
The recovery team is using a disaster recovery model based off a similar wildfire disaster in Bastrop County, Texas, where flames burned thousands of acres in 2011.
With the help of the Appalachian Service Project, the non-profit has already broken ground on building the first new home for wildfire victims, with 24 more soon to come. Wilhoit hopes to finish 100 homes by the end of the year.
She said that goal comes with one recent show of unexpected support:
"The most fabulous thing that we just heard about was on Friday, when Dolly announced the remaining $3 million was coming to Mountain Tough Recovery Team.”
Wilhoit said several committees will need to meet before determining exactly where that donation will go, but maintained every penny will benefit wildfire victims.
"We know that disasters are local. It starts local and it ends local, and we're willing to take that on."
The recovery team also plans to host forums and other community events to educate the public on fire safety.
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