They knew they had to do something, but they didn’t know what.
The news out of Gatlinburg was so horrific and so close to their home away from home in nearby Walland, that Elizabeth and Seth Maxwell felt a deep and sudden need to get involved. But how?
Elizabeth Maxwell started calling “anybody that I could think of” to try and figure out ways to help the scorched region. Friends and relatives sent the married couple money before they even had a plan, trusting that the determined Maxwells would spend it wisely.
After talking on the phone to the American Red Cross and numerous other aid organizations — “I’m telling you, that day I made I don’t even know how many phone calls,” Elizabeth said — she found what she and Seth were looking for.
“Out of all the phone calls, I talked to Kelli from Smokey Mountain Area Rescue Ministries, and she was telling me that the following Saturday was their annual coat drive, and that the schools typically help out with that, but the schools were closed so it was kind of a tricky situation,” she said. “She wasn’t sure how it was all going to unfold, and if they were gonna have enough coats to typically fit their needs, and then the need was probably gonna be greater because there were so many who lost everything.”
The Maxwells have three children: Addison, 7; Grayson, 4; and Hudson, 2. Addison is a second-grader at Crockett Elementary School. If Gatlinburg area schools usually helped with the coat drive, why couldn’t a Brentwood area school?
“The light bulb went off,” Elizabeth remembered. “I thought this is a great thing where I could approach our principal.”
That she did, and Principal Robert Bohrer soon joined in the effort to collect coats at Crockett Elementary, Elizabeth said. The coat drive would begin Monday, Dec. 5 and run until Thursday, Dec. 8.
“I was so excited to get him on board, and we were laughing and saying if we could get 150 to 200 coats that would just be fantastic,” Elizabeth recalled. “And after the first day when we picked everything up I called him and said, ‘We are gonna meet that goal and blow it out of the water.’”
On the very first day, Crockett Elementary collected what Maxwell and Bohrer hoped to collect for the whole drive: nearly 200 coats.
The next day and the next day and the next were much the same. Elizabeth would come to pick up the day’s coats and find the donation boxes overflowing.
The boxes were so stuffed with coats that Elizabeth couldn’t pick them up and take them to her car. She had to grab as many coats from the boxes as she could carry and make trip after trip to her Yukon XL.
“I wore a path from the foyer of school to my car in the parking lot,” she joked.
Amazed by the generosity on display at Crockett, Elizabeth decided to expand the operation and enlist the help of her church, Brentwood United Methodist. The church sent out an email blast on Tuesday, and by Wednesday night, after the children’s advent choir performance, the Maxwells had amassed another 200 coats. Her children rode home awash in a sea of coats.
“All you could see were their little heads,” Elizabeth said.
Each night, Seth and Elizabeth Maxwell boxed up the day’s haul in preparation for the trip to Gatlinburg. The final pickup from Crockett was Thursday, and later that afternoon Seth Maxwell drove all the coats to East Tennessee.
He dropped them off at the charity Friday morning. All 1,216 of them. The rest of the family followed.
“Oh my goodness, it was freezing cold. But it was — I’ll try to do it without crying … you know, it was just really special to be a part of it,” Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth and the kids worked on the children’s side of things, while Seth worked giving away adult coats and other donated clothing items. Elizabeth said that people with the charity stressed to them that they should try and “make a connection with each person and help them find something so they walk out of there head to toe.”
Seth asked several people what kind of coat they wanted — a puffy jacket, something they could wear to church, etc.
“Time and time again, people said, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s freezing and I just need something that’s gonna keep me warm,’” Elizabeth remembered, tearing up anew.
The Maxwells went there to serve other people, but Elizabeth thinks her kids got something important out of the time at the coat giveaway, as well. They saw a side of life that most children who grow up in Brentwood aren’t exposed to very often.
“I think that we kind of live in this bubble, and as much as you talk about it, they don’t necessarily get it,” Elizabeth said.
Addison enjoyed assisting the shoppers that Saturday. She helped kids pick out not just coats, but scarves and blankets, and gave shoppers garbage bags to put their items in. The reality of the situation seemed to sink in for her over the course of the day.
“One of the boys came in – and I’m tearing up again — and he was shivering and she was like, ‘Mom, he’s shivering,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah baby, it’s 18 degrees outside, that’s why he’s here. Let’s help him find something super-duper warm,’” Elizabeth said.
Four-year-old Grayson appeared to be especially affected by what he saw driving around the Gatlinburg area with his dad.
“We had been showing them some photographs that are age appropriate as it was unfolding, but to lay your own eyes on it is a completely different story,” Elizabeth said.
The usually rambunctious child quieted down as he and his father patrolled the charred landscapes of the vacation town.
“My kids are chatty little people and [Seth] said for a good 20 minutes [Grayson] was just sitting in the back of the truck and looking from side to side and just really couldn’t believe it,” Elizabeth said.
When the day was done, the Maxwells found that they still had unopened boxes of coats at the ready. They had literally collected more coats than they could give away. That day at least.
The Maxwells asked the head of the Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries if it was alright if they took those extra coats and tried to find another place that needed them. They were told that was fine.
“So we ended up taking a variety of men’s, women’s and children’s coats and we drove into Gatlinburg, and we spoke to the people at the Red Cross, and it just so happens that one of the volunteers there has a friend that is very involved with the First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg,” Elizabeth said.
The person told her that the First Baptist Church was going to have a coat giveaway of its own on Dec. 19.
“It’s crazy that on a whim I happened to run into the right volunteer who happened to know somebody in similar need,” Elizabeth said.
In the end, the Maxwells learned a lot from their experience coming to the assistance of East Tennessee.
Some of it was logistical.
“I figured out my car typically can hold about 200 coats,” Elizabeth said. “If you didn’t have three kids you were hauling around, you could get more.”
Some of it, however, gets a little bit deeper. It has to do with the power of human resilience, and the unexpected gifts that can come from getting into the middle of a tragic situation.
Elizabeth Maxwell summed it up best in an e-mail she wrote about this whole situation she and her husband and her kids got involved in:
“Tragedy is always unfortunate, however, seeing people rise to the occasion and create opportunities is a valuable life lesson.”