United Way of Greater Chattanooga honors special lives

United Way of Greater Chattanooga honors special lives

February 21st, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

United Way of Greater Chattanooga board chairman Dr. Bill Stacy, left, hugs 2012 Impact Award recipient Tonya Rooks, center, who was presented the award by allocations oversight committee chairman Ross Schram during the Annual Meeting and Partnership Celebration Wednesday at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. The 2012 United Way campaign raised a total of $11.6 million to benefit the Chattanooga area.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Award Winners:

* Best New Employee Campaign: Volkswagen

* Employee Campaign Manager of the Year: Rob Majors, FSG Bank

* Impact Award: Tonya Rooks, College Hill Courts Residents' Association

* Volunteer of the Year: John Rutter, ACE Hardware

* Tocqueville Society Courage Award: Steve Morgan

If she had looked up, Tonya Rooks wouldn't have recognized her audience.

Minutes earlier, a United Way committee chairman named Ross Schram told a group of 300 about College Hills Courts, the neighborhood where Rooks serves as a community advocate. Schram painted a picture. About 70 percent of the neighborhood's residents live in poverty. Education levels are low. Crime is high.

Then, he asked Rooks to walk across the stage, where the only lights inside the Chattanooga Theatre Centre beamed. In the audience, the men wore suits, vests and ties. The women wore skirts and high heels. They all stood and clapped. Nobody had ever cheered for her before, Rooks would later say. But she didn't see it.

"I was afraid to turn around and look," she said. "I was afraid I was going to fall."

Rooks started working with the United Way in August 2011 when her community elected her the College Hills Courts Resident Council president. Rooks, who said she has been clean from crack cocaine for 10 years, thinks people listen to her because they can relate to her past struggles.

On Wednesday, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga gave Rooks its Impact Award at the organization's annual meeting, where United Way leaders talked about what they did in 2012 and celebrated their success. In particular, 2012 Community Campaign Chair Alison Lebovitz announced that the organization met its goal of raising $11.6 million last year.

Minutes after Rooks departed from the lights, Steve Morgan followed her path. Morgan, the Society Courage Award winner, climbed the steps holding his daughter Sara in his left hand and a cane in his right.

Morgan used to sell building materials, but after going blind in 2005 he went back to school to become a counselor. Now he serves on the Cleveland School Board and as a part-time pastor at the First Baptist Church of Cleveland, Tenn.

He also works with a village in Senegal and an orphanage in Nepal, helping those with vision problems adjust to the world. Morgan has also started working with a blind school in India.

"I found out I was more useful damaged than I was, in the world's eyes, whole," he said.