'They're our neighbors now,': Good samaritans, local businesses donate goods to Hurricane Florence evacuees

Zach Vance • Sep 14, 2018 at 10:32 PM

BRISTOL, Tennessee — At a church meeting Wednesday, Jonesborough resident Mike Morgan was posed with the questions: “What are you doing to help people? What are you doing to answer God’s call?” 

Thinking about it all night, Morgan saw a news report the next day about Bristol Motor Speedway opening up its campground to Hurricane Florence evacuees, and the answer finally came to him.  

“I don’t have a lot of resources. I don’t have a lot of money to buy things, but I can reach out to the community and see what I can do to make (the evacuees’) stay nicer while they’re here,” Morgan said. 

That initial question led to an idea, and that idea led to action as Morgan spent most of his day Friday running to different restaurants, grocery stores, the humane society, even Jonesborough’s town hall, asking for supplies or discounts to give to the evacuees. 

“I started out by going to The Black Olive and the other restaurants in Jonesborough. Then I realized Food City partners with the speedway so I went there to see what they could give me,” Morgan said. 

“These stores can’t give much without corporate approval, but they were able to give me some surplus waters, some of the bags (and) ValuCards to give to the people to get discounts. After Food City gave us that stuff, we were just excited.” 

In the span of 24 hours, Morgan got 11 different restaurants to offer discounts or coupons. The McKinney Center in Jonesborough donated coloring books for children, while the Washington County Humane Society donated cans of food for pets. 

Once the supplies were collected and bagged by Morgan’s two daughters, Caitie and Hannah, Morgan drove his van loaded with 30 care packages over to Bristol Motor Speedway, where Nathan Farnor, Seth Graves and Carleen Claybaker were ready to help him disburse the goods. 

“The first family we came up to with a care package told us that they have never seen such compassion and didn't expect so much support from the community,” Mike would later write on Facebook about his experience.

“The mother began crying tears of joy as we brought out cans of food for their 2 dogs, allowed their daughter to select whatever she wanted from a stack of coloring books and grab a Frisbee, and showed "Mom" the list of businesses that had partnered to help. We hugged for a few seconds, and I told her ‘Welcome to Tennessee... as long as you're here, you are family to us.’ ”

The care packages certainly produced a smile from Kathy Rios and her three dogs. Living in her R.V. full-time on a piece of land in Raleigh, North Carolina, Rios was afraid of what high winds and flooding might do to her small R.V., so she fled to a state park in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Once there, she soon learned the state park was closing due to the hurricane, and through word of mouth, she eventually found out about Bristol Motor Speedway’s offer. Another man who received a care package shared a similar story, saying the campground he was staying at near Martinsville, Virginia, had closed. 

“The fact they have us here, I mean, we have full hook-ups, and they’re not charging us anything to stay here,” Rios said. “(Bristol Motor Speedway) has been very hospitable, checking on us everyday to make sure we’re OK ... Each camper was given a person to call, just to stay in touch with us in case we needed anything.”

In addition to their hospitality, the speedway provided a potluck lunch Friday to all the 20-plus evacuees staying at the Medallion Campground, and everyone was offered rides around the “World’s Fastest Half Mile” in a pace car. 

“We’re really blessed to be able to showcase Bristol Motor Speedway to these folks that are dealing with tough times right now,” Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway, said.  

“The BMS team, along with our partners at Food City, Levy and Champion Chevrolet were able to put on a potluck lunch and pace car rides for these individuals to welcome them to the area and let them forget about their troubles for a while.”

Lowe’s and Walmart also donated pallets of water and goods to the evacuees. 

All in all, Morgan said it always feels good to give, especially when it helps those who need it the most. 

“These people are having quite possibly the most stressful weekend of their lives right now, and hopefully they can take advantage of those tickets to Bright’s Zoo for 10 percent off (or) take advantage of the free festivals in Jonesborough and Johnson City this weekend.

“We just want them to come out and be a part of our community because they’re our neighbors. For right now, these people are our neighbors and we need to treat them that way,” he said.