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Start of school year 'like a relief'
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Local educators are taking a cautiously optimistic approach for a sense of normalcy in the new school year.

Loudon County and Lenoir City schools welcomed students back with a staggered start last week. The academic year got fully underway Monday.

“I’ve seen as much excitement so far this year as I’ve ever seen in the 19 years that I’ve been here. It’s like a relief,” Don Maloney, Lenoir City Elementary School principal, said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. Not only are we coming back but it looks like we’re going to be able to participate in a lot of things.’ We’re planning music programs. I’ve got my new music teacher working with the grade levels, so we’re planning a lot.

“Veterans Day, I want to get that back up and running again,” he added. “We want to do our days of celebration through our language arts curriculum again where we bring the families in and do our celebrations of learning at the end of our modules and that kind of thing, so the kids seem excited. I think the faculty’s excited.”

Maloney emphasized starting the new year right. Faculty returned July 29.

“Masks are optional, and we’ve had some kids that have had them on,” he said. “We’ve had some parents that have come in the building with them on and that’s perfectly fine. I respect where everybody is. We have grandparents day scheduled, we have our book fair scheduled, so we’re anticipating being as back to normal as we can possibly be. ... I think it’s important to get back to as normal as we possibly can and I think it’s important to involve not only families, the parents, but the community.”

Although last year was difficult, Maloney said his school found positives.

“We’re going to continue all of our hand washing, all of our sanitizing of the bathrooms and sink facilities,” he said. “We still have the spray gun we’re still using that because I think that’s going to help with flu and anything else that can go through schools. We’re going to continue to maintain all of our cleaning and safety things that came up as a result of COVID, so there were some positives. It wasn’t all negative.”

Matthew Brookshire, Highland Park Elementary School assistant principal, hopes classes will stay in session without interruptions.

“We’re delighted to see our students back into the building, and although we still have some restrictions put in place this year, we don’t have quite as many,” he said. “We want it to feel as much like a normal school year for our kids as possible. Having them here in that friendly environment, in that fun environment where they can be with their friends, where they can do the things that elementary-age kids enjoy doing at school — lunch and recess. We want them to be excited about those things.”

Brookshire said measures have been taken for as normal a return as possible, including social distancing that students may not notice.

“They’re skipping seats in the cafeteria, but they still get a chance to move frequently so that they can sit with their friends in the cafeteria,” Brookshire said. “They’re able to play together on the playground as an entire class as opposed to last year we had different zones on the playground so they’re able to do that. Our preparation has just been in the planning. What can we do to still ensure as much social distancing and safety protocols as possible but allow the kids to experience a normal school day?”

Scott MacKintosh, Loudon High School principal, said most pre-pandemic events will be back.

“We have the football jamboree this Friday night,” MacKintosh said in an email correspondence. “Next week is Battle of the Bridge Week. That will include the canned food drive for Good Samaritan Center of Loudon County. We plan to have our first pep rally since 2019 on Friday the 27th. We are so excited for our new athletic field for football and soccer. Both of those sports, along with volleyball, golf and cross country, have already started their season. At this point, there are no limitations on number of spectators at any events.”

MacKintosh saw benefits in last week’s staggered start, which allowed staff to get to know students and develop a positive relationship.

“Learn their likes and dislikes,” he said. “It’s about finding the best way to reach our students on a level that is more than just the content standards. If we build that positive relationship right off the start, it provides an avenue to let students know we care about them as more than just a student. In the end, they will work so much harder for us if they know we care about them.”

She works with a servant's heart
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Loudon County Habitat for Humanity volunteer Sarah Reynolds always had a desire to give back to her community.

Her hard work was recently recognized when Reynolds, 89, won the Legacy of Volunteerism Award during the Tennessee Habitat for Humanity annual conference in Murfreesboro.

Reynolds is the first local Habitat volunteer to win the award.

“Each year Habitat for Humanity Tennessee presents State Impact Awards to recognize individuals and groups that have significantly impacted the lives of residents and communities and made tremendous strides in supporting Habitat for Humanity’s quest to end poverty housing,” Sammie Shanks, local Habitat volunteer coordinator, said in an email correspondence. “Even though we realize Sarah does not seek glory for her many deeds, we felt strongly that Sarah should be recognized and were confident that a review committee would agree that she is deserving of recognition.

“For many years to come the Loudon County Habitat affiliate and Habitat families will benefit from the impact Sarah has made, and she is also setting the stage for her family to continue the involvement with Habitat,” she added.

The award is presented to those who lead by example and whose service over time demonstrates repeated acts of care for Habitat and the community. Reynolds works to set an example for women of all ages to participate in the hands-on building of homes.

Reynolds and her husband, Richard, were part of a small group of people in 1992 who organized the local Habitat affiliate.

“Our dream was to build our own house, to actually do the construction work ourselves,” Reynolds said. “For Christmas one year I bought him a radical arm saw. Well, it had to wait three years while we moved to Florida to work, then came back to Tennessee. We bought property in Loudon County and our five children and their families helped us build the house we now live in. I enjoyed so much working with my family to build our house. About that time we heard about a meeting to start a new Habitat affiliate in Loudon County. With Richard’s background in construction, and our experience working with our children on our own house, we knew we could help these people build their own houses.

“There was no question in our minds that it was what we were meant to do,” she added. “We just felt it was what the Lord wanted us to do and why he had led us to Loudon County.”

Habitat opened a thrift store in 1995 to raise money for construction, and Reynolds was a vital cog in a committee that planned the store operation, selected the site, built the display tables and shelves and solicited donations of used clothing and household items for resale. Two moves followed before a permanent location was found for the store.

Reynolds expanded her role in 1996 and began coaching and mentoring a family as they worked their sweat equity hours to fulfilled requirements for their new Habitat home. Reynolds has since worked to support several families by encouraging, advising, praying with them and — at times — being stern when necessary.

“I love building houses, and I love the families,” she said. “I love seeing their faces when they get their keys and their family Bible. It makes my heart feel so good to know I’ve been able to help them.”

One of those families was Jarred and Erin Rise, who along with their three children, moved into a Habitat home in 2006. Jarred is now part of the Habitat construction staff.

“We were so blessed that Richard and Sarah Reynolds were our sponsor family because they were such loving and caring people,” Jarred said. “They encouraged us along the way but also made sure we got where we were supposed to go step by step. Sarah has made certain to stay in touch with my family ever since. She really loves us and walks the walk.”

Reynolds was instrumental in the Women Build program, which to date has included 160 women and constructed 11 homes. A family took ownership of the latest house in May.

“Sarah is a vital part of our Habitat family,” Tony Gibbons, local Habitat executive director, said in a news release. “We admire her and never cease to be amazed by her spiritual strength and faith. She is tireless and a true role model to anyone who wants to serve their community.”

Reynolds has served in various Habitat roles, including being on the board of directors, soliciting grants and donations for projects, representing the nonprofit at meetings and events and recruiting volunteers.

Her desire to simply help surpasses Habitat. She’s been instrumental in her church, Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, becoming a sponsor for three home builds. She continues to work at the church.

“Sarah is one of the first people to volunteer to take care of her neighbors if ill or if they need food,” the Rev. Amy Moorhous, church pastor, said. “She is first to call and check on someone if they are not doing well.”

In addition, she volunteers with the Compassion Ministries Inc., food pantry and supports the Center of Hope to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, clothing and gifts to rural Appalachian counties. She’s one of the longest tenured singers in the Knoxville Nativity Pageant.

“I love helping people do what they can do to improve their lives,” Reynolds said. “... The Lord has a lot to do with it, bringing Richard and me to Loudon County.”

Loudon American Legion marks 100 years
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Saturday became a big deal in more ways than one as Loudon’s American Legion Post 120 celebrated 100 years.

The post, which was founded Aug. 24, 1921, welcomed guests and visitors noon-5 p.m. with food, inflatables, cornhole, door prizes and raffles.

“This organization started out obviously 100 years ago by our forefathers in our county here and we’re proud to be able to continue the tradition on and today we’re honoring the service of all veterans that are a member of this post and have been a member of this post,” Mike Brubaker, vice commander, said. “Just a very proud day for us.”

Bobby Watts, commander, said the post has always been part of the community, so celebrating with the public seemed fitting.

“It’s been a community organization for 100 years now so that’s what we wanted to get together today and get the community together and get us all involved,” Watts said. “That’s why we have the jump houses out here and the water slides for the kids and stuff. It’s not just veterans today, this is also just the community, too.”

The gathering also provide the opportunity to recognize longtime American Legion member Rollen Bradshaw Sr., who has been with the post 66 years.

“He’s royalty in the American Legion, and he’s a mentor to all of us,” Brubaker said. “It’s a proud day for all of us to get to recognize him. … He tried to join the Army three times in the Korean War era and was denied because of his bad vision. … He memorized the eye chart, so his patriotism was so strong he memorized the eye chart and went back and finally passed it. You don’t hear stories like that often; that’s just crazy.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., and State Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, were in attendance.

Post members surprised Bradshaw with a street sign officially naming the driveway to the post building Rollen Bradshaw Sr. Way. Bradshaw also received a letter of appreciation and a citation for his decades of continued service.

He said the recognition means “a lot.”

“It means that somebody took the notice for how long I’ve been here and things that’s been accomplished,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve had a good life in the American Legion and VFW. I’ve traveled to all of the states except three of them.”

Bradshaw served 1953-56 in the U.S. Army. During his time in the American Legion, he held various offices locally and nationally, including post commander, state vice commander and state commander.

He credits leadership as a reason for the post’s continued success.

“It just seems to continue to grow with good leadership from rolling along,” Bradshaw said. “… You got the auxiliary, you’ve got the Legion Riders, you’ve got the Sons of the American Legion and they all work together hand in hand for the veterans and for the community. You see all this stuff for the kids. The post ought to take care of families and children and take care of the disabled veterans.”

County jobless numbers match state

As the economy recovers in the aftermath of COVID-19, Loudon County Economic Development Agency is making plans for growth.

The county unemployment rate increased 0.9% in June to 4.8%, which is still 0.1% lower than the state average.

“Now Hiring” signs are posted at numerous businesses across the community, and some industries are even offering signing bonuses or paid time off.

Loudon was one of 54 counties awarded last month a $50,000 ThreeStar grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for an economic impact study of the local workforce.

“The study is going to look at barriers in the community, as well as what are the things that attract people to our community,” Jack Qualls, EDA executive director, said.

Hopes are to identify community assets and obstacles. Factors may include zoning that impacts housing and growth, growing affordable entry-level housing options, maintaining education systems to retain higher-skilled employees and showcasing the many miles of shoreline.

“Whatever comes out of the study, it’s an opportunity to tell our story and market our area,” Qualls said.

Unemployment rates have been leveling to pre-pandemic levels, and the slight increase this summer may be due to the season.

“June is typically a month when county unemployment rates increase due to seasonal impacts, such as school breaks and recent college graduates entering the workforce,” Chris Cannon, director of communication at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said.

Another possible impact includes career changes after the pandemic. The shift from the norm of 8 a.m.-5 p.m. in the office to remote work has pushed employees to look for flexibility.

“Unemployment in most counties has greatly improved and moved closer to pre-pandemic levels over the last 17 months,” Cannon said. “While the situation is much better than it was in 2020, there are still many Tennesseans who are not working.”

The effects of the pandemic on the workforce will continue to be seen in the expectations of employers and employees.

“Employers have seen more productivity when employees are given more flexibility,” Qualls said. “People are noticing what is more important, working for less and having more free time.”

EDA mostly deals with the manufacturing sector for employment, using social media to promote job fairs by local companies. The ThreeStar grant should help find more creative solutions for bringing workers and jobs to the area.

“You have to have workers to have jobs, and social media is the majority of how we will get the word out and draw people here,” Qualls said. “We will discuss what we have here to offer other people and identify the resources we may take for granted — things others wish they had in their community.”

Future public meetings regarding the ThreeStar grant are being planned.