Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt was the virtual guest speaker this past week for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga's 38th annual Stake 'N Burger Dinner, which raises funds for the nonprofit organization.

It doesn't take long for Jim Morgan to recall the day he knew the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga were going to be relied on like never before by our town's neediest young people.

"March 17," the nonprofit organization's CEO said this past week. "Schools had closed the day before due to the coronavirus. By the next afternoon we had people coming by pleading, 'We need help, we need food.'"

Though the doors of its facilities were closed, the charity's hearts were wide open. From that day to this one, the organization has delivered more than 130,000 meals to the nearly 2,400 youth (ages 6-18) it serves.

"We delivered 100 meals that first week," Morgan said. "It's 1,300 meals a day now. We directly help families, and a lot of those families have never needed our help more than now."

A lot of good people in this city reached out to help Morgan's organization Thursday night through its first-ever "virtual" Stake 'N Burger Dinner. Despite COVID-19 forcing the abandonment of the format that had served it so well for 38 years, one in which kids eat steaks while adults munch on hamburgers, the two age groups sharing tables, Morgan noted Friday that this year's event still raised close to $300,000. (The 2020 event's online appeal for donations points out that sponsors become "stakeholders" in the effort — hence the dinner's name.)

"It was such a positive to see how quickly the community came together to help," Morgan said. "Just how giving Chattanoogans are. We had several sponsors make extra donations to help this year at a time when a lot of large foundations have announced they're pulling back."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Boys and Girls Clubs of Chattanooga CEO Jim Morgan speaks during the organization's Great Futures Luncheon in February 2019.

The fact that third-year University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt was the virtual guest speaker probably didn't hurt interest. And despite being seen on a computer screen only, Pruitt touched on several points that surely made every Volunteers fan proud and were worthy of Boys & Girls Clubs kids embracing, whether or not they ever play for the Big Orange.

"When we're recruiting, we're looking for student-athletes first," Pruitt said. "Football is not going to last forever, so we work really hard to prepare them for life after football."

He also said this: "The most important thing is intangibles. What kind of character do they have? Are they dependable? Who they are off the field is a good indicator of who they'll be on the field."

And for those who think the UT coach is only interested in how a player interacts with him, think again.

"When I go to a high school to recruit, I like to go to the lunchroom," he said. "I like to see how the young man interacts with the lunch ladies. A lot of times that's a reflection of how he treats people in general."

He also likes to sneak a peek at the recruit's high school practice: "Is he the first one out there? Is he the last to leave? That will tell you how important football is to him."

Perhaps most importantly, he told his virtual audience: "Number one, always tell the truth. When I was young, I was going to youth choir practice at my church one day, and I told a story to the choir director. My dad set me straight on that real quick when I got home."

Nothing is moving real quick when it comes to escaping the coronavirus pandemic. Orlando Lightfoot, senior manager of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga, has seen the frustration in the eyes of so many children since they were first allowed to return to the organization's facilities in August.

"It's almost impossible to impact kids when you're not around them," said the 45-year-old Lightfoot, one of the best basketball players ever produced in the Scenic City, as shown by his being twice named the Big Sky player of the year during his time at Idaho after graduating from City High School in 1989.

"Kids are our thing, and they miss those relationships. A lot has changed in six months. We didn't have summer camp, so a lot of them were running around the streets. It takes time to reestablish those relationships."

To help ease some of that isolation and give them a better chance to succeed in school, the club helped procure 60 Chromebooks to assist with online learning and such, those purchases — and all those meals — greatly aided by sizable contributions from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Federal Cares Act and grants from United Way's Restore Hope program.

It hasn't saved everyone.

"The worst heartbreak has been when you've been delivering food to a family five days a week, and one day you knock on the door and no one answers because they've lost their residence," said the 59-year-old Morgan. "When you finally find them, they're in a homeless shelter. It's just heartbreaking how quickly some of these families can lose everything."

Morgan left a high-paying job in the private sector two years ago for his current role. A native of Beecher, Illinois, he was the first member of his family to attend college. He once worked with a nonprofit in Chicago that helped inner-city kids advance their education.

"It's incredibly rewarding to work with kids from really reduced circumstances and help them be the first person in their family to go to college," Morgan said.

For 38 years, the instant reward for all those Boys & Girls Clubs kids was to break bread at the Stake 'N Burger Dinner with all those successful adults they aspire to become.

"Our kids missed it a lot," Lightfoot said. "They really like meeting new people."

He paused, then said what almost everyone everywhere is assuredly thinking these days.

"This," Lightfoot said, "has been the worst six months ever."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.