BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As the Smoky Mountain resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge continue to recover from last year’s devastating wildfires, a second $5,000 HEART (Humanitarian Emergency Aid for Rebuilding Tomorrow) Fund grant from the national Woman’s Missionary Union and the WMU Foundation will assist workers struggling due to the decline in tourism.
The wildfires that swept through the Smoky Mountain region in late November and early December came at the beginning of the busy Christmas season. As a result, many who make their living in arts and crafts, service, retail, and other tourism-related enterprises lost their homes and jobs.
The needs of these workers are still great, said Vickie Anderson, executive director of Tennessee WMU.
“The decline in tourism is causing reduced hours, layoffs, and loss of jobs. Also, a lower income housing shortage in Gatlinburg has gotten worse since the wildfires, which means that many workers are having to relocate to Pigeon Forge and beyond,” Anderson said.
Many of the workers did not have cars because they could walk to work from their homes in Gatlinburg. Others lost their cars in the fires. The lack of reliable transportation coupled with the housing shortage has resulted in increased homelessness in the area.
“The homeless population is growing because monthly costs in housing and transportation are increasing drastically for so many,” Anderson said.
Those most affected are people who work in hotels, restaurants, entertainment attractions, and shops. Gatlinburg businesses employ many temporary and international guest workers who are ineligible for other forms of assistance.
The HEART Fund grant will be distributed through Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries to help workers with transportation, housing, and transitional needs as they rebuild their lives after the fires. As “boots on the ground” in Gatlinburg, SMRM personnel are ministering through the relationships they have developed through years of faithful service, Anderson said.
A $5,000 HEART Fund grant awarded in December 2016 allowed SMRM volunteers to give out gift cards to help fire victims with immediate needs. However, relief funds have slowed dramatically since the beginning of the year, SMRM director Bill Black said.
“Our income has almost stopped in terms of money for helping those affected by the fires, but the needs have not stopped,” Black said. “We remain deep in this holy and painfully beautiful fire ministry.”
The WMU Foundation is accepting donations to the HEART Fund for disaster relief online at wmufoundation.com or by mail to WMU Foundation HEART Fund, 100 Missionary Ridge, Birmingham, AL 35242.