“It’s like our new family” Group travels to Tennessee for wildfire relief

From left to right: Sheri McMillin, Chantel Eaton and Sarah Chapman (WTHI Photo)
From left to right: Sheri McMillin, Chantel Eaton and Sarah Chapman (WTHI Photo)

CARLISLE, Ind. (WTHI) – Sarah Chapman, Chantel Eaton and Sheri McMillin remember their trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee as if it were yesterday.

“We went and bought ‘Free Hugs’ shirts,” Eaton said, “and I bet we hugged thousands of people, I’m not kidding. We spent New Year’s Eve there with those people in their town.”

It’s a trip not just for leisure, but to make a difference. After watching wildfires rip through Tennessee, the group of three knew they wanted to help.

“It just turned into a much bigger thing than what we thought we were going to do,” Eaton said.

Eaton, who runs an animal rescue in Linton, says it all started as an idea to bring supplies to a Gatlinburg animal shelter that was lost in the fire.

“Every year Stephanie Arthur, a teacher in Bloomfield and her class, in lieu of Christmas gifts they take up supplies for my rescue,” Eaton said, “My rescue is doing really good right now, so we said let’s take them down to Gatlinburg because their humane society burnt to the ground.”

In addition to the class’s donations, Eaton made a Facebook post explaining her trip to Gatlinburg and asking for items to donate. Eaton says she mentioned in the post that they would be meeting at the Save-A-Lot parking lot.

“We pull up in the parking lot and the cars just started pouring in,” she said, “I mean with people things, animal things, we had to get extra cars to load them.”

When Eaton told Chapman and McMillin, her co-workers at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, about the idea, they also jumped on board.

“We started out, we were just going to take an SUV because all we were going to do is the animal supplies,” Chapman said, “but then it got bigger and bigger and bigger, so we ended up renting a U-Haul.”

The women and other volunteers loaded up the U-Haul, filled with just about everything from blankets to clothing. The women set off for about six hours to bring the items to Gatlinburg. They stayed there for four days.

“We wanted to go meet them and just be a part of it, we wanted to see for ourselves what the damage was like,” Eaton said, “The first night we pulled in, it was 11 o’clock at night. We went straight to Walmart and people were living in their cars in the parking lot, sitting in lawn chairs around their cars in the middle of the night.”

The women originally planned to set up shop and give away items outside in their motel parking lot, but plans took an interesting turn.

“Chantel is networking with people down there and networked with a lady by the name of Pam Torrey,” Chapman said, “and she had rented a building for her family Christmas, she didn’t have to turn the keys back in until the 5th of January. She told us we could use the building to get us out of the cold, and she was able to get us into a warm place where we could get things distributed.”

After posting on Facebook and networking with different people in Gatlinburg, Eaton said word about what they were doing traveled fast.

“It was a hand-up, not a handout,” Eaton said, “It wasn’t a free for all for people to come and say ‘Hey, what do you have that I can have?’ People were specifically messaging me ‘Do you have this or that? This is what I need’, they weren’t taking things they didn’t need. Some of them just asked for one outfit or a blanket, things like that.”

“It wasn’t that they might’ve lost something in the fire,” McMillin said, “but even if they didn’t lose it in the fire, they lost their jobs. So they’re worrying from one minute to the next about how they’re going to put clothes on their backs, take care of their kids.”

Through the memories made, pictures taken and stories to cherish, the women say it’s about more than just giving back.

“People say ‘Oh you guys are heroes, you’re angels’ and I tell everyone, no we’re not, I said everyone should have done this,” Eaton said, “It’s like our new family. We didn’t just take stuff to a bunch of random people and say ‘Here you go! You’re welcome!’, you know, we’re coming to move in with you people, we’re here to stay,” she finished with a laugh.

The women say they are definitely planning another trip back to Gatlinburg. If you’re interested in donating, you can contact Chantel Eaton at 812-798-7157 (texting is preferred).