KINGSPORT — When the legendary country singer Loretta Lynn wrote and sang the song "Coal Miner's Daughter" in the late ‘60s, little did she know that a generation or two later, school children from lower-income families in Kingsport would clearly identify with some of the words in her song.
For example, the “love” in the song comes when members of the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association visit Kingsport's Lincoln Elementary School every year with new clothes, food and school supplies for the needy children there.
The Sons and Daughters of Douglass are alumni from the former Douglass High School, once Kingsport's African-American school.
"Every year, we apply for a Community Development Block Grant from the government through the city," says Sons and Daughters of Douglass President Douglas Releford, "and we use those government funds specifically to buy items for the children at Lincoln. Administrators let us know what things the kids need the most, and we buy from that list. It helps take the burden off teachers who sometimes have to spend their own money to buy things the kids need."
This is Suzanne Zahner's first year as principal at Lincoln. She says, of all of the community programs the school is involved in, the one from the Douglass alumni caught her eye.
"One of the things we know about high-poverty schools, is that they need to engage their communities and utilize all the resources available to them," she says. "The fact that we have the Sons and Daughters of Douglass coming in and saying ‘hey, we're here ... we have money, and this is what we can do with it for the kids’ is a tremendous blessing."
On the surface, you might think the kids need school supplies, pencils, paper and backpacks. But you'd be surprised, as Douglass alumnae Andra Watterson and Thelma Bradley wandered the aisles of one warehouse store during a shopping trip recently.
"In the summertime, we didn't have shoes to wear ... but in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair."
"Coats and hats, socks and gloves, shoes, undergarments," says Bradley while checking out one aisle. "When we've brought those to be given out over the years, the kids get to go through and pick the colors and the designs they want. It was like Christmas. Their faces were just beaming."
"It might be hot that day," says Watterson two aisles over, "and the kids would put their items on anyway. They'd be sweating, but they were so proud to show off what they had. It almost makes you want to cry."
Clothes aren't the only things on the list. "We also buy them personal hygiene, soap, and deodorants, even thermos bottles," she says. "Over the years, the need grew past school supplies."
The nine years that Watterson spent in Lincoln's nutrition office also highlighted the need for one special necessity.
"I remember well, the well where I drew water."
Over the years, snacks have rocketed to the top of the shoppers' to-buy list.
"I've seen many of the children come to school in the morning and you know they're just hungry," Watterson says. "It's in their faces… you see it in the way they walk around… the way they talk. They might not tell the teacher, but they will tell each other. If those kids had any breakfast at all, it wasn't enough food to get them motivated in the mornings. It just breaks your heart."
As a result, non-perishable snacks and nutritional non-sweets have a special place in the shopping basket, too. "Anything that comes in a sealed package that can be handed out over a period of time is what we look for," says Watterson, who remembers her days growing up at Douglass Elementary. "Even though we didn't have snacks then, nobody went to class hungry because our 'snacks' were fresh. Professor (former principal V.O.) Dobbins grew vegetables fresh every season in his garden on Dunbar Street, and the women at the nearby Central Baptist Church canned them for the kids at Douglass. We ate them for breakfast and lunch all the school year... never got tired of them.
"Every child at Lincoln should have nutrition as good as that in the morning."
Principal Zahner agrees.
"Sometimes we have kids here at Lincoln who go into full panic attacks because they don't know the next time they will eat," she says. "What must they be thinking" 'Well, I just had a snack and now lunch is coming up. Then, lunch is over and now I'm going home and I don't know when we'll get dinner or if I'll get full.' That's when the panic level starts spiking and all of a sudden, they're not learning in the classroom. No child should ever be hungry, because it distracts from the learning process. They should never be too cold or too hot in school for the same reason.
"Children just cannot learn when they're distracted."
"To complain, there was no need... She'd smile in Mommy's understanding way."
"The smiles on the parents' faces mean a lot," Zahner says, "but nutritious snacks, food and comfortable clothes are a relief to the children," she says. "That's one burden they carry on their little shoulders that is now gone, at least for that one day and then hopefully many more."
Zahner asked for one special thing on the list that momentarily puzzled the Sons and Daughters of Douglass bargain shoppers on Aisle 23. Peppermint was one of the requests.
"Studies have shown that peppermint itself scientifically opens up avenues in the brain, that allow people to focus better and process information coming in faster," says Zahner. "The research I've seen shows that often, just a little peppermint can be used in high-stakes testing, spelling quizzes, or school work that requires a lot of focus. If it works in moderation, we're willing to try it because it might engage the students' learning capacities."
Despite some skepticism among child behavior experts, articles in the Washington Post and the website Livestrong.com do appear to suggest a little peppermint in moderation might stimulate memory and alertness.
"Science to the rescue, and the kids might benefit?" Zahner says. "Who knew?"
"The work we done was hard.... at night, we'd sleep 'cause we were tired."
While the Queen of Country Music "never thought of leaving Butcher Holler," Principal Zahner knows that some of the children under her charge will have a good day ahead of them when they leave home to come to Lincoln School.
"We know they are smart," she says. "All of our kids are smart and most of them love coming to school. But some of them are dealing with survival and that's an adult problem. We have to stop that from happening. We have to keep their minds on the pleasure of learning, not the problem of surviving. That's where the Sons and Daughters of Douglass group is a big help to us. In some way, all 460 students at Lincoln are touched by the items the Douglass group brings to us."
In four years, the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni Association in Kingsport has spent almost $8,750 in community block grant funds on needed items for the children of Lincoln School. Doug Releford says "because the purchases help the teachers, administrators, parents, the school system and especially the students, it's a win-win for everybody," particularly for some of the Douglass alumni in between the store aisles, shopping for children they've never met.
"When you can buy something for a child, knowing their faces will light up when they're surprised with it," says Andra Watterson, "that makes it worthwhile."
Thelma Bradley echoed that sentiment, saying "it's been a good shopping day for the kids when you can say softly to yourself... 'I'm glad we did that.’ "