Samaritan Center helping East Hamilton County tornado victims 'by proxy'

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Damage at The Church of Jesus Christ International on Overhead Bridge Road is seen on Thursday, April 16, 2020 in Cleveland, Tenn. Late Sunday, an EF-3 tornado struck the area, badly damaging the Church, Hicks says after speaking to their insurance company, the church will not be covered for the incident.

If not for the coronavirus, the Samaritan Center would have been a first stop for help for Chattanooga residents affected by Sunday night's tornadoes. Even while the Lee Highway storefront is closed, the agency is serving clients, just not in the conventional way.

"We're working by proxy - by phone and email and fax," said social services director Sharon Smith-Hensley, who has been fielding requests from families within the organization's East Hamilton County service area, which includes East Brainerd and Ooltewah, two of the communities hardest hit by the storms.

Preliminary property assessments indicate more than 1,000 structures were damaged in Hamilton County, with at least 344 completely destroyed. The storms ravaged much of Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia late Sunday night and early Monday morning, killing at least 11 people and displacing 450 people.

The Samaritan Center has been a resource for people in need since it opened in October 1986 as a community ministry of five Seventh-day Adventist churches. The center provides help with utilities, rent and life-sustaining medications; food through a Community Food Pantry; clothing, furniture and household items through a thrift store; cleaning supplies and personal care products that cannot be purchased with food stamps; baby layettes filled with newborn necessities; school supplies and toys.

ZIP codes served by The Samaritan Center

37302 Apison37308 Birchwood37315 Collegedale37336 Georgetown37341 Harrison37353 McDonald37363 Ooltewah37416 Highway 58 / Bonny Oaks37421 East Brainerd / TynerContact information* Phone: 423-238-7777* Fax: 423-238-7766* Website:

In the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes, Smith-Hensley said she has been able to steer clients to other agencies providing crisis assistance. In addition to the standard-bearers, such as the United Way, Red Cross and Salvation Army, several grassroots efforts have bubbled up this week, coordinated by YMCAs, schools and churches, among others.

"There are three phases of recovery: initial, what we're in right now, then recovery and rebuild," Smith-Hensley said. "Our focus is on recovery and rebuild. We're here for the long haul, is how we look at it."

Smith-Hensley said it's been all hands on deck for her, two case managers, a receptionist and part-time support staff this week. She couldn't get out of her Ooltewah neighborhood because of downed power lines on Monday, and the center didn't have phone service until Tuesday. Since then, they have been directing clients toward available resources.

Although coronavirus restrictions bar access to the thrift store to scout for clothing, they are able to provide groceries to regular clients who receive monthly food boxes and new clients who've lost jobs in virus-related layoffs. They've also been able to fill emergency food requests, completed with no personal contact.

"We get the information over the phone, load [the food] up in a cart and pass the cart through the door, so we're limiting exposure," she said. "They load their car and leave the cart on the sidewalk. Then we disinfect it before we bring it back in."

The thrift store and donation center have been closed since mid-March, so for now the only donations the center can accept are monetary.

"It's just us," Smith Hensley said. "We do the best we can. We treat each client fairly and try to look at each one's needs instead of 'here's a rubber stamp' kind of approach. That's the privilege of being a faith-based institution and not bureaucratic."

Contact Lisa Denton at