ABOUT THE AWARDS
Since 1972, the Jefferson Awards recognizing volunteerism have been presented on the local and national levels. Each year a national winner is selected in four categories: Elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger. The final winner of Chattanooga's Jefferson Awards will attend the national awards program in Washington, D.C., this spring.
Before the neighborhoods and stores in Bradley and McMinn counties needed rebuilding, before insurance companies were on speed dial and chain saws buzzed sunrise to sunset, Connie Wright's life was fairly quiet.
Her children were grown, living away from home. At 59, she and her husband -- the man she fell in love with in college -- had settled into an easy rhythm after her retirement from church work five years ago.
She helped out at church, gave money when she could, but was always looking for ways to get closer to people with messy situations and costly needs. Then in April, when tornados ripped through the region, she walked out her front door and was in the thick of it.
"I just had to be get up and go," said Wright, a recipient of a 2012 Jefferson Award. "For me, for my Christian faith ... that was what I was required to do. Get up and go."
The day after the tornado hit near Cleveland, Tenn., she answered phones at the Salvation Army and worked at the distribution center. Then she struck out on her own, going door to door to homes nearby, asking if people needed money or food or help tearing down sagging roofs or splintered walls.
On her own, she talked with 100 families in Bradley and McMinn counties, eventually working with the Methodist Church to give financial assistance to 25 families.
And some of them needed to be pushed into accepting the help, she said.
"When many are now saying, 'What they are recovering from?' Connie is saying, 'What do you need?'" said Lisa Mantooth, who has worked with Wright as the Bradley County case manager supervisor for the Long-Term Recovery Organization. "She has never one asked, 'What's in it for me?'"
On Hall Norwood Road in Cleveland, where five homes were destroyed, Robert Lee and his wife didn't know what to say to Wright when she came to their door asking if they needed help.
What was left of the neighborhood was scattered across the road in rotting piles.
"We told her we didn't need any help," said Lee. "She kept asking, 'Are you sure you don't need help?'
"We couldn't believe it, and we didn't know where to turn."
Three days later, Wright gathered a crew of people to come move furniture from the Lees' home. Over the next three months, she recruited several hundred ROTC and church groups from as far away as New Jersey to tear down their house.
The insurance company paid off the house, but wouldn't pay for the old home to be torn down, said Lee.
"If we didn't get all that help we would still be tearing it down right now," he said. "We don't know what would have happened if she hadn't walked down our street that day."