Most people approaching retirement age are looking forward to slowing down and taking it easy. But Kingsport resident Bobby Flowers seems to have other plans. His desire to make a difference with the homeless population of the Tri-Cities area prompted him to enroll at King University two years ago at the age of 56 to complete his bachelor’s degree in social work.
“I’ve been wanting to go back to school for years,” he said. “I took a course in 2016 in social work at King and knew that was what I wanted to do,” he added. Bobby felt a degree and experience in social work would be an attribute in his quest to improve the homeless situation.
At first, Bobby was unsure about going back to school, especially after receiving a bad grade on his first assignment. “I thought, there is no way I’m going to be able to go back to school,” he said.
“Then I had to take statistics – I hadn’t had any math since Carter was president,” he laughed.
Not only did Bobby go on to successfully graduate, but he was awarded the Patty Gibbs-Wahlberg Social Work Scholarship. He accepted the coveted national award in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2018.
“The Patty Gibbs-Wahlberg Memorial Scholarship is a coveted social work award that honor students from across the country vie for each year,” said Jodi Helbert, Ph.D., assistant professor and program coordinator of Social Work at King University. “It was established in memoriam of its namesake, Patty Gibbs-Wahlberg, a social worker committed to service to others. Bobby certainly exemplifies the essence of this award in his character and never-ending quest to serve, not be served. In Atlanta in mid-March 2018, Bobby presented his compelling thesis. The audience was so moved by Bobby’s compassion that he received a standing ovation - according to the Phi Alpha National Social Work Honor Society president, Dr. Paul Baggett, the first one ever.”
Bobby was also awarded King University’s Graduate and Professional Studies Award (GPS) in April 2018. In the spring of 2017, Bobby was also given the Jane Addams Social Work Student of the Year Award.
Bobby attended ETSU in 1978-79 where he studied mass communications and has worked at WKPT-TV in Kingsport for almost 39 years in TV operations. While attending King, Bobby continued to work full time at WKPT-TV as well as serving as a chaplain for Ballad Health System and Bristol Motor Speedway; volunteering at the Melting Pot in Johnson City to feed the homeless; and staying active in his church, Hosanna Fellowship in Johnson City, where he is a drummer with the praise and worship band. He also battled skin cancer surgery and hernia surgery during that time. Bobby said that God was his source of strength during those challenging years. “God got me through that. It was God in the grades, the awards, everything. It was all him,” he said.
His strong compassion for the homeless was the motivation behind Bobby’s pursuit of a degree in social work. The desire began when he, his wife Corey, and son Christopher began volunteering at the Melting Pot in 2005, which they did for 11 years. Associated with Good Samaritan Ministries, the Melting Pot serves food to hungry people using food donations from a variety of generous sources. Although he was never homeless as a child, Bobby said that his family never had much money. “The struggle was to the point where it wouldn’t have taken much (to become homeless),” he said.
“Most people are probably only two paychecks away from not being able to pay their bills,” he added.
One of Bobby’s goals is to encourage city leaders and individual organizations to work together for the good of the homeless population.
“We have a lot of homeless here,” said Bobby. “Some live right out back in the alley behind the TV station.” According to Bobby, there are over 300 children in the Kingsport school system this year that are considered homeless.
Before changes can be made, however, Bobby said there needs to be more public awareness of the problem. “We have to shine the spotlight on the problem. There are a lot of people that would jump in and help. This is a giving area, especially Kingsport,” he added.
One specific goal Bobby is working towards is to bring awareness of the need for housing for the homeless. “We need a place set up to take them in so they can get the help they need. That’s the issue,” he explained. Bobby said he would like to see the City of Kingsport assist in coming up with a plan to house the homeless, joining with other agencies as a part of that service. “We’ve got to change the way we see these people,” he said. “They’re not just ‘those’ people; they’re part of this community that doesn’t have everything they need to live.”
It was this passion for the homeless in the Tri-Cities that served as the driving force behind Bobby pursuing more education, obtaining a social work degree and possibly facing a career change in this stage of his life. “This desire I have is from God,” Bobby explained. “The Bible says we’re always going to have the homeless and the poor, but it also says to do justice and help.”
Although he is not certain just where this new journey will take him, Bobby is confident that God has a plan. “I’m just waiting for Him to let me in on it all,” he laughed.
One thing that is certain - this dedicated advocate for the homeless will not be slowing down anytime soon.