Josephine Wortham, a public housing resident and grandmother, helped more than a dozen children start a community garden using kitchen knives and forks for tools.
The 2011 Southeast Regional Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare recognized Wortham for her community service Friday.
"She is an unbelievable leader in [her] community," said Tina Vance, Step One health program supervisor with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. "She gives kids hope."
Vance was among nearly 150 people present as social service workers named Wortham Volunteer Advocate of the Year. It's one of only two awards the conference gives.
The other, Professional Advocate of the Year, went to Stacy Miller, Tennessee Correctional Services program manager. Miller was recognized for her work against domestic violence.
Wortham, a 55-year-old mother of four, moved into Emma Wheeler Homes in November 2009. Since then she has led the community's youths to build 16 gardens. The food they produce helps feed 23 families, said Beth Simpson, with the health department.
The department gave Wortham a $1,000 grant to help get the gardens growing. She also got contributions from other donors.
Wortham also taped maps and multiplication charts to her living room wall and opened an after-school learning center that she calls Club Jesus.
Students from preschool up to high school are offered safety at her house and help with homework.
She and her daughter Samantha Oliver, a student at Chattanooga State, also helped students form a dance team. Wortham meets with about 70 children a week.
"We saw no hope when we first arrived," said Wortham. "Now we see the smiles on children's faces."