CFMT Grantee: In wake of tornado devastation and pandemic, Putnam County welcomes peer counseling

UPDATED 03/01: The following story includes original reporting, as well as updated information provided by CFMT and Heart of the Cumberland’s executive director, Tammy Wilson.

Heart of the Cumberland in Cookeville, Tennessee provides peer support groups to promote hope and healing to those on a journey through grief. Peer support groups are offered in the community as well as in Putnam County Schools. The organization received a $10,000 grant from the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund to provide peer support counseling groups for those directly and indirectly affected by the March 3 tornado in Putnam and surrounding counties.

Heart of the Cumberland received a $10,000 grant to provide peer support counseling groups for those directly and indirectly affected by the March 3 tornado in Putnam and surrounding counties.

Lost in the darkness of grief and despair, many Putnam County residents are finding their way to a brighter outlook thanks to Heart of the Cumberland.

The small Cookeville-based organization, which facilitates peer counseling groups, has been an important cog in relief and recovery efforts after a powerful EF-4 tornado ripped its way through Putnam County in the pre-dawn hours of March 3. Nineteen people died in the county, including five children, and injuring more than 300 people. Hundreds of families were displaced from their damaged homes.

A worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown followed within days.

As a popular song once wondered: How do you mend a broken heart? Mental health will become more and more of a priority in the coming days, in Putnam County, Middle Tennessee and throughout the world.


Tammy Wilson, executive director of Heart of the Cumberland (HOC), responded to questions from The Community Foundation

CFMT: How are you using, or planning to utilize, the tornado emergency response grant?

HOC: Currently, at least through next Monday night [June 1], we will host Zoom meetings for the tornado survivors. The response has been slow, but we are serving at least four families through this media outlet. We will take a short break in June and then restart the tornado survivor groups onsite at our office or at a nearby park throughout the summer. These will be informal drop-in groups for children, teens, and adults. Snacks, books, and art activities will be provided for children and teens.

When our regular grief groups start back up onsite in September, we will add a tornado survivor group in addition to the groups we already serve. Additional staffing and childcare will be needed, so we are grateful that these grant funds will assist us in those areas. Please know that we will continue to provide support groups for tornado survivors as long as they are requested. Since the COVID virus hit right after the tornado, it’s hard to say when these survivors will actually be ready to talk about the shock of the tornado and begin to process their grief.

We also have a program called “Emma’s Joy Bears” that we have extended to children of tornado survivors. This weekend we will distribute over two dozen Teddy bears to families that have requested a bear for their child or children.

CFMT: In light of changes in how we all live and work due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, how is your organization managing to work in supporting tornado relief and recovery efforts? What challenges have you all overcome or are overcoming?

HOC: Because our organization only has a staff of three, we have managed to work well from home or in shifts. After our initial plans to host tornado survivor groups on March 16 were thwarted because of the COVID issue — literally that day — we had to reformulate a plan to serve our community.

After we learned about Zoom and being able to host groups through that outlet, our greatest challenge was getting the word out to tornado survivors. We contacted churches, funeral homes, and eventually John Bell at the Cookeville Regional Charitable Foundation. He is a wealth of information. He had the list of all those who had suffered loss of a loved one or property, so we created a private Facebook page for tornado survivors and asked Mr. Bell to send out an email blast to all those affected. Several families have joined the Facebook group, but not as many as we had hoped. From the Facebook group, we extended the invitation to start the Zoom groups.

I really think that people will be more interested once we begin the onsite groups in July. I’m getting a little tired of Zooming myself —it’s just so impersonal. I plan on contacting Mr. Bell again in late June, requesting that he send another email blast to survivors announcing the onsite groups.

CFMT: Give a favorite example or two of your staffers or volunteers stepping up to make a difference to help people through these disasters, and/or a client or clients who have benefited from your efforts.

HOC: Regarding volunteers — we have THE best. We have at least 25 men and women enlisted to assist with the tornado support groups whenever needed. Our community groups director, Kim Mendoza, has been the one who has stepped up to make these tornado survivor groups a reality. She has a heart of gold.

Our other wonderful staffer, Molly Cornwell, is our school groups director, and she has been hard at work conducting online trainings (normally onsite trainings) for educators interested in using our self-published grief curriculum for school-aged children. Several of the children from the area that was hit by the tornado attend a particular elementary school, and I am sure that these children will be referred by their school counselors to participate in our school groups.

Note that these school groups are usually grief-related due to loss of a loved one, but they are also due to loss of a parent due to incarceration, abandonment, etc. Children who were adversely affected from the tornado can certainly be added to our groups if they need a safe place to work through this type of grief.

CFMT: In terms of tornado recovery, what needs remain in your community or communities?

HOC: The emotional needs of our community will be the one thing that remains, after all the workers have gone. It’s going to be a challenge to help people work through their grief from the tornado and their grief (or fear) related to the virus. We are not professional counselors by any means, but even our own personal experiences during the past couple of months have been challenging, and none of our staff lost anything or anyone due to the tornado.

CFMT: Define the word “hope” for you and your organization.

HOC: For Heart of the Cumberland, HOPE is fairly easy to define. Because we are a faith-based organization in origin, we hold to the hope of Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” I also read a quote from a devotional last week (paraphrased), “Other men see a hopeless end, but the Christian man sees an endless hope.”

Follow up with Tammy Wilson, Executive Director, Heart of the Cumberland

CFMT: From your organization’s perspective, what progress has been made since the March 2020 tornadoes, and what more still needs to be done for survivors?

HOC: Heart of the Cumberland continues to provide peer support groups for tornado survivors since last March. We had spring and summer groups that met in person, with six to eight participants in each group. In fall of 2020, no one signed up for these groups, but thankfully we have nine participants signed up for the 2021 spring groups, which started Feb. 9 and continue each Tuesday evening for the next 11 weeks. We will continue to offer these groups for as long as needed.

We have reached out to Randy Porter, Putnam County Executive, to see how we can help out during the remembrance event they are planning for March 3.

Many organizations and volunteers have helped tornado victims with tangible needs, and much ‘progress’ has been made from that standpoint. However, the once-thriving neighborhoods that are now bare wastelands are still a haunting reminder that ‘progress’ is in the eye of the beholder.

As far as mental health progress, only time will be able to heal those wounds, and Heart of the Cumberland will be here to offer support groups indefinitely for those who are just beginning to open up and talk about their experiences.

We completed the latest revisions of our grief curriculum in January and had it professionally printed. Funds CFMT provided helped us offset these printing costs so that we can provide these materials free of charge to our participants.


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