By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
CLARKSVILLE — The tornadoes that swept through Clarksville in late October were not even over before Carolyn Watson’s phone was ringing.
Not only in Middle Tennessee, but throughout the state, Carolyn Watson and the disaster relief team from Cumberland Baptist Association are known for their quick response to disasters where chain saw and flood/fire recovery are needed.
Her involvement in disaster relief has kept her close to home as evidenced by two responses in Clarksville just this year as well as sending her all over the United States and literally around the world, including a trip to Japan after a major tsunami caused mass destruction eight years ago.
Watson was honored by WKRN-TV (News 2) in Nashville in November as a “Hyundai of Cool Springs Hero.” Once a month, News 2 and Hyundai honor a public servant “who goes above and beyond the call of duty.”
Watson took the award in stride, giving credit to her co-volunteers in Cumberland Baptist Association. “I am thrilled that disaster relief was recognized but without a dedicated team behind me, I couldn’t have gotten that award. It was a team effort.”
Watson first became involved in DR in 2001 when a team from Hilldale Baptist Church, where she is a member, attended a Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief training event following 9/11 in New York City. Though trained, Watson was unable to travel to New York due to a scheduling conflict.
That may be the only major disaster she has missed over the past 18 years. A year following her training, she became director of the DR team at Hilldale Baptist. In 2005, the Hilldale team, which by then included volunteers from other churches, officially became the DR team of Cumberland Baptist Association.
Though Hilldale no longer has a team of its own, the church is one of the DR team’s strongest financial supporters, Watson said.
Watson recalled that from the beginning she “fell in love with disaster relief.”
Though she and the Cumberland team, which includes her husband Mike, did some mass feeding when they first formed, flood recovery and chain saw work became the association’s niche. She still recalls going to Fayette County, West Va., following heavy flooding there in 2002. “They were very poor but so appreciative of what we did.”
Since then, she has worked every major disaster plus hundreds upon hundreds of other disaster events in Tennessee and around the nation. And, with some major events, such as Hurricane Katrina, she went more than once.
The Cumberland teams have helped thousands of people over the nearly two decades they have existed, said Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“I am honored to be working with great volunteers like Carolyn and all the others who give so freely to bring help, hope and healing to those affected by disasters,” he said.
Jones added that Watson has played a major role in Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief. “She organizes, she coordinates, she recruits, she trains, plus she goes out and does the work and oversees volunteers.”
Watson values the relationships she has made over the past 18 years. “I have made friends all across Tennessee,” she affirmed.
Though no one wants to see a disaster happen, everyone is excited to see friends and co-workers when called to a site, Watson said. DR volunteers from across the state form bonds, she added. “When you see people over and over, you get to know them.”
Probably more than anything, Watson is excited about the opportunities the Cumberland DR team has had to share the gospel. The team normally takes at least two cases of Bibles with them on every call out and very few times do they return with Bibles in hand.
Watson said disasters provide opportunities to share Christ with people who otherwise may never hear the gospel. She cited one call out when fires swept across Colorado a few years ago.
Though her team had then never responded to fire recovery, they went, she said. “We were told that it is like flood recovery, sort of,” she said with a grin.
She recalled they actually worked on homes owned by wealthy, educated people in the Boulder area who wanted nothing to do with Jesus. In fact, the team was specifically told they could not talk about Jesus. “We went anyway,” she said.
The volunteers did their job and made an impression on the people. Two years after the fires, flooding hit the same area. “They asked for the Baptists,” Watson said. “We had made an impact two years before. Now, Baptists are planting churches in that area,” she added.
“Disaster relief is love in action,” she affirmed. “People will listen (to the gospel) if only to be polite. Then the Holy Spirit takes over.”
She estimated that Cumberland teams have led a couple of hundred people to Christ in 18 years, but thousands of seeds have been planted as a result of disaster relief. “It’s thrilling to know that we have planted seeds that others will one day reap.”
The work in Colorado gave the team experience that was helpful three years ago when fires swept through Gatlinburg and other portions of Sevier County. The Cumberland team cleaned out 12 structures destroyed by the fires.
Watson and Don Owen, DR director for Nolachucky Baptist Association (who also has been one of the key leaders in Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief for many years) developed a manual which is still used in the state to train volunteers for fire recovery.
Watson, now 73, has no plans to end her work with disaster relief. She thought it might be over two years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer, but she has had a full recovery and her cancer is in remission. “God healed me,” she affirmed. Her doctor gave her clearance to do anything she wanted. A week later the Cumberland team was deployed to a disaster site and “I was on the truck,” she said.
Watson admitted, however, that she “is slowing down. I will have to do more administrative duties,” she acknowledged, “but I’m not going to quit,” she said with a smile.