A Gift of Warmth
Facts about the homeless can be both daunting and elusive. That is not surprising since people in transience are frequently hard to identify through statistical records. But for Janette Burgin, a resident of Knox County, Tenn., it wasn’t sifting through statistics, but seeing the faces of people in need of some assistance that made her want to do something to help.
Janette and a group of her colleagues in the mortgage division of Regions Bank join together regularly to serve lunch at a local church providing hot meals for the needy. And it was there she was humbled by the plight of the people she met. “It’s really eye opening when you see the families,” Burgin says. “There are strollers coming through the line, and little children. That’s hard to see.”
According a 2011-2012 report from the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), of the homeless currently accessing services from KnoxHMIS partner agencies, 30 percent of households represented are female single parents and another 10 percent are two-parent families. The conclusion is inescapable—clearly, there are a lot of homeless families with children living in Knox County. And while many stay in homeless shelters, others may be living in camping grounds, in cars or simply going from one friend or relative’s home to another, with little sense of stability.
Not being one to just sit back and do nothing “because the problem is just too big for me to do anything about,” and with the children she’d met at the soup kitchen fresh on her mind, Janette had a conversation last fall with her friend and colleague Lacy Wallace. That conversation convinced her she had to do something to help. Lacy mentioned that her church hosts an annual Christmas brunch where they give out small gifts to families in need, and that this year the church wanted to give brand-new sleeping bags to the children. “That was basically the end of our conversation,” Lacy says. “But Janette, unbeknownst to me, took it upon herself to spread the word.”
It struck Janette that a sleeping bag would have special significance for a child living in transience as both a tangible and symbolic gift of warmth. “We can’t change homelessness for all the families in our county,” she says. “But if families with kids know somebody cares and wants to provide something of comfort to help make their circumstances just a little bit better, I hoped that would give them some added hope for their families and for getting through a tough situation.
Janette had to act quickly if she wanted to collect enough bags to distribute at the church’s holiday party, just a few weeks away. But a stroke of good fortune happened at just the right time. At the last minute, Janette was asked to fill in as a speaker at the annual Thanksgiving luncheon of the Women’s Council of Realtors. Janette used her allotted time—typically set aside to make marketing presentations on behalf of the bank—to kick off her campaign for sleeping bags for the children.
“The affiliates and realtors in that room heard the call, decided to help, and picked up the mantle,” she says. From there, word spread fast: other mortgage lenders, appraisers, builders, inspectors, and other professionals got involved, including associates she hadn’t heard from in years. “People I worked with years ago popped up on Facebook and said, ‘Janette, I want to help.’ It kind of went viral,” she recalls. “It was just phenomenal to see the real estate community in which we work come together and provide help for our community’s children.”
By December 8, the day of the brunch at which the children would receive their gifts, Janette had raised 275 sleeping bags. The church raised another 75 for a total of 350, which were handed not only to children who attended the brunch but also throughout the community at large. Her friend Lacy was amazed with the results from Janette’s determination. “It’s incredible to me what the power of one person, acting on one clear vision, can accomplish in a very short period of time,” she says. “Because of the group’s efforts, including those she helped inspire, we are hopeful that many homeless children in Knoxville/Knox County will sleep a just a little bit warmer this winter.”
JANETTE BURGIN and LACY WALLACE are Regions associates in Knoxville, Tenn.