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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tony Oliver helps deliver meals at Patten Towers on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In mid-March, as the pandemic hit Chattanooga and hard times got harder, Troy Rogers bought $100 in groceries and called his friend, Tony Oliver, with a challenge:

Let's feed our people.

"We just started doing it," said Oliver, "and it became contagious."

Six days a week, they serve food across the city. They often begin in the Westside, then to Dogwood Manor and Boynton Terrace. After that, homeless shelters, women's shelters, Patten Towers. Then, Alton Park. Overpasses. And underpasses.

Their early goal was to serve 200 meals a week.

Today?

You won't believe how many people they're serving.

"It's done with love," said Rogers. "We see somebody on the side of the road, we stop."

Rogers, 47, is the city's public safety coordinator and one of the best men I know. He is love in action, a first responder for the streets, the man people call when going into prison. Or coming out. Trying to get a job. Or stay alive. Twenty bucks for groceries. Somebody when there's nobody.

He can talk philosophy or socioeconomics, but really, it's far simpler: love your brother and sister.

"People are hurting," he said. "They experience tornadoes every day."

Along with sack lunches of sandwiches, fruit and chips, or pizza, or chicken and rice cooked up by Rogers' wife and daughter, folks across this city get an extra helping of Rogers and Oliver, who would — no exaggeration — give you the shirts off their back.

They're not alone.

In response to the coronavirus, Marie Mott began serving food four days a week, working with Lakweshia Ewing and Chris Sands' We Over Me, Tennessee United, LaDarius Price and Westside Missionary Baptist, too. At Eastdale Village Community United Methodist, an empty lot is being turned into a community garden.

When we write the history of pandemic Chattanooga, we must remember the nourishing work of people feeding people.

Rogers and Oliver?

Currently, they're averaging about 1,500 meals a week.

As of Friday, they've served 8,207 meals in all.

Black, white, brown, young, old, clean, addicted, housed or homeless.

"None of that matters," said Oliver. "We're still going to feed you."

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Oliver, 56, grew up in the Westside surrounded by loving family and elders; with five scholarship offers, he graduated from City High in 1981, yet, in a story too often told, did not escape the streets. Bad decisions made with the wrong crowd put Oliver in prison for nearly 20 years.

In 2007, his life changed.

He found sobriety. And a full-time job.

A group of men mentored him. ("They loved me back to life," he said.)

He met his wife, LaToya, a longtime teacher.

"I don't know where I'd be without her," he said.

But it wouldn't last.

As so many black men know: the prison system is the hardest gang to escape.

In 2017, Oliver was moved to third shift. His home was burglarized, once, then again. His wife bought a handgun for safety, tucking it in her bedside table.

With "a month or two left" on his probation, he said, officers stopped by for one final visit.

They searched his home. Found the gun.

It was a violation of his probation.

With his daughter watching, officers cuffed Oliver, and sent him back to hell.

"Back through the whole system," he said. "I lost everything. I had to start over again."

Released in 2018, he had to rebuild again.

His wife bought him $80 in cleaning supplies.

"I started going door to door," Oliver said.

TNT Cleaning was born.

He was grinding, hustling. One client became two, three, when Jonathan Frost, managing partner at J.D. Frost and Company, called.

He hired TNT Cleaning.

"I could sit down crying right here, right now, for the way he has been in my life and all the people he has connected me with," Oliver said of Frost. "He is like a brother to me. A big little brother."

"Tony Oliver is redefining this idea of hope in Chattanooga," said Frost. "I have this desire to continue to help him and, in turn, what ends up happening is he ends up helping me more."

Today, TNT Cleaning has five employees and cleans multiple buildings, homes and offices across the region. (Want a powerful speaker? Ask Oliver to come tell the rest of his story to your school, men's group, book club or Bible study.)

But both men — Rogers and Oliver — give credit where it's due. Family, friends, supporters and mothers.

"My mother Jill was a teacher at an HBCU [historically black college or university], Knoxville College," said Rogers. "She used to bring blankets and food to class."

Rogers asked why.

"Baby, my kids are hungry," his mother said. "They can't learn if they are hungry. You've got to meet needs before you do anything else."

Oliver said his mom, Johnnie Bell Gomez, would mail her last dollar to him in prison. She loved him when he "was unlovable."

"Always help people," Oliver said. "One thing is for certain and one thing for sure. At a blink of an eye, it could be you."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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