Many people in Johnson City will forever remember Cookie McKinney as the Science Hill High School French teacher who organized the French club’s annual spring breaks to France. Or they may recall her for her years as a regional manager for a banking group or for the Chantilly’s Limited gift shop she owned and operated with her sister Judy.
But it’s McKinney’s latest role as Mountain States Foundation’s manager of Children’s Initiatives at Niswonger Children’s Hospital she believes will matter most. “I’ve enjoyed every facet,” she said. “They all had ups and downs. But in my role at the children’s hospital, it’s like they say, when you have a sick child, nothing else matters.
“My role encompasses any project or program that helps generate awareness or funds for the children’s hospital. That includes working with schools, corporations and individual donors. We have Patty Bolton, who does our major events and does a wonderful job and a great team at the foundation that works well together. And we have the staff at the hospital, they’re our heroes. I’m the lucky one who gets to tell our stories but the real heroes are up on the floors working.”
It’s a job that requires empathy and as a person whose only brother and sister both died much too young, McKinney feels she’s in the right place.
“Parents are in hard situations when their children are sick. But as I’ve heard Mr. Scott Niswonger say many times, if children have to be sick, we want them to be in the happiest place they possibly could be, with lots of bright colors and lots of light to promote healing.”
Because the hospital serves a four-state, 29-county region with a population of 200,000 children, McKinney’s job takes her far and wide to work with people and groups of many diverse interests. But from the Boone Lake Bass Club fishermen who help stage the NHC Bass Tournament to the performing artists who lend their talents to the foundation’s galas, she’s found a single common thread. They all have a genuine concern for the health and wellbeing of children.
“One of the reasons I love what I do so much is I see the goodness in people every day.”
The bass tournament was a whole new experience for McKinney and she loved it from the outset. “Last year we had 183 fisherman and they caught 826 pounds of fish. They have great hearts and I enjoyed getting to know them and many great sponsors who supported us.”
She coordinated the Children’s Hospitals Christmas card sale for which the young patients draw the designs, a panel of judges selects the winners and the foundation produces the cards for sale in the hospital gift shops. Last year’s winner was Comet the reindeer. The children are drawing this year’s designs now and she’s anxious to see what they come up with. “God did not give me the ability to start an IV or give a shot. But hopefully what we do to raise awareness and funds will provide the things these clinicians need to save lives.”
A friend described the children’s hospital as “a gem of our region” and McKinney agrees. “I remember what it’s like to be scared in a hospital room. Following that path (with others) you try to make their pain a little more bearable. We really try to let them know we’re here to help them travel the journey of whatever they’re dealing with.”
“Trying to instill hopefulness is important to me. I love this job not only because I get to see the kindness and goodness in people, but I get to see the patients and families and how kindness and goodness in our community makes a difference in lives.”
Outside the hospital, the things McKinney loves most are cooking — “nothing fancy just good ole food” — music, Broadway and traveling, “but always coming home.” She spent a year in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. She studied in France and in Switzerland. And she returned to France many times while she was teaching. But she considers herself a true Johnson Citian, “born and raised.“
“It takes a long time to have appreciation for the things surrounding us. Part of growing up and growing old is loving the things that are right here,” she said. At home and at work, McKinney is also known for her love for dogs. At the hospital, she enjoys the therapy dogs that visit the patients and at home her heart belongs to her “time-share dog” Irby, who was dumped in her neighborhood and rescued by her neighbors, the Stouts. “He hit the lottery when he found the Stouts and they found him in their bushes,” she said. “Dogs are a comfort and Irby has been a great blessing.”