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Saving lives with counseling, a card and a cup of coffee

Key Takeaways

  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust donated $31,000 total to the 5 organizations mentioned in this story.
  • The goal of the Community Trust is simple and straightforward: to support health-focused nonprofits that promote the wellbeing of all Tennesseans.
  • In total, the Community Trust donated more than $517,000 to Tennessee nonprofits in 2022.

If you’ve ever gotten a card in the mail, you know a small gesture can make your day. What you may not know, however, is that a card like that can save a life. 

“We send care packages and handwritten cards to military veterans and service members all over the globe,” says Jessica Duke, CEO and founder of Friends of the Troops (FOTT). “But we also serve troops stateside, which is something few organizations do.” 

Jessica’s goal is simple, if ambitious: to reach any veteran or service members who may have fallen through the cracks at other organizations. Judging by the responses they receive, she is succeeding.

“It’s not unusual for us to get an email saying, ‘I was having a really bad day and your package put a huge smile on my face,’” she says. “Or even ‘The card you sent saved my life.’ Letting these people know they’re not forgotten or alone is why we’re here.”

No unsung heroes

As someone who had previously volunteered with military nonprofits for years, Jessica saw that many needs were going unmet. There was a gap for troops stationed in remote locations as well as those serving at home but far away from family. So, in 2019, she founded Friends Of The Troops. Jessica decided to meet any need she could, by any means necessary — even if it meant, say, filling up a room in her house with supplies for the local VA hospital, which she did last May. 

“When we get a gift, we make the most of it. We certainly didn’t expect to launch a nonprofit right before a pandemic!” she says, laughing. She then added, “In 2021, we functioned at 98% efficiency, which is almost unheard of. I’m very proud of that.” 

Functioning at that level means that 98 cents of every dollar donated to FOTT last year went straight to the troops — including the majority of the $5,000 donated by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust. 

The funds are used in myriad ways. Sometimes care packages filled with candy, snacks and socks are sent to Navy nurses in Guam. Other times, hygiene items go to combat medics in the Middle East. For some troops who have no families supporting them, these items boost morale. For others, they help offset costs. 

Abby Linscott and her care package

“Service members are often on a tight budget,” says Jessica, “and they faced a lot of supply-chain issues during COVID. Using the BlueCross grant, we were able to give a lot of new military moms diapers and breast pumps. When we delivered them, several of the moms cried. To be honest, I cried! 

“Every day of the year, there are troops overseas in some very dangerous, very remote locations. These people are serving their country, and it’s a privilege to help make their lives even a little bit easier.”

Helping right here at home

For Jessica, that mission is just as important here at home. One of the biggest gaps she saw with other nonprofits were the groups they didn’t serve, such as reservists, National Guard members and troops stationed at bases far away from home. These folks desperately need a supportive gesture, and it doesn’t always have to be complex. 

“We recently had a National Guard member who received 42 cards for her birthday,” says Jessica. “She was overjoyed.”

Another group in need of a boost is veterans.

“I’ve met veterans who’ve said they’ve never before been thanked for their service — and these guys are in their 80s,” says Jessica. “For a lot of the general public, the military is out of sight, out of mind unless they’re in the news. But they sacrifice so much to protect our country, sometimes taking years away from their families. The least we can do is to remember and reach out to them when they do come home.”  

Donations like the grant from BlueCross make that support possible, says Jessica, as well as the support of medics and nurses overseas and military families here at home. In addition to the monetary contribution from the Community Trust, BlueCross employees collected donations for FOTT care packages as part of the company’s year-end donation drive in 2021.

“It sounds like hyperbole,” she says, “but for some service members and their families, the support from BlueCross was literally life-saving .”

In order to be eligible for grants from the BlueCross Community Trust, nonprofits must focus on: 

  • Charitable clinics 
  • Chronic disease management  
  • Diversity and inclusion 
  • Youth development   

Here are four more 2022 grantees promoting diversity and inclusion.

Lunch for Champions

Orange Grove Center

One in three adults in Tennessee has a disability. Of those:

  • 13% are related to cognition, meaning a person has difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions;
  • 8% are related to independent living, which means a person cannot complete errands — such as visiting a doctor’s office — alone; and
  • 4% have disabilities related to self-care that are severe enough they cannot bathe or dress on their own.  
Robert Eddington

On top of logistical challenges, people with disabilities experience mental distress five times more than people who don’t. That’s just one reason this population needs special support, says Windy Brooks, assistant director of development at Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga.

“In 1953, parents and leaders started the Orange Grove Center to provide services for children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD),” says Windy. “Today, we serve both adults and children, but some things remain the same. For example, we’re still, first and foremost, a place of hope and possibility for families who have loved ones with IDD.” 

Orange Grove takes a holistic, person-centered approach. They help families with everything from health and dental care to training and employment. They offer transportation, enrichment and retirement services to more than 1,000 children and adults each year. And for those in their community who need around-the-clock care, they offer a full-time residential program. 

50 years as part of the family

One person who’s benefited from that is Robert Eddington, who’s participated in Orange Grove’s Residential and Supported Living Programs for many years.

“We started serving Robert in 1972 — when he was six years old,” says Windy. “During his 50 years in the Orange Grove community, Robert has become close friends with our staff. He’s worked as a security guard with maintenance; he’s participated in Special Olympics bowling; and he’s even dressed up like a member of his favorite band, Kiss, for our talent show! Robert loves Orange Grove, and he loves the staff who have become his friends.”

In 2021, Robert and his family were highlighted during Orange Grove’s Lunch for Champions. The annual event celebrates Orange Grove families, staff, professionals and supporters, and it raises funds to help the community grow. Due to the pandemic, the event was held virtually, with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee as the presenting sponsor.

“Our 2021 Champions event raised $27,000 dollars,” says Windy. “We used those funds to expand our telehealth capabilities, increase our physical and nutrition services, and upgrade our health and dental services, among many other things.”

In 2022, the Orange Grove Center was thrilled to once again have support from the BlueCross Community Trust — which donated $10,000 to the Champions event.

“It means so much to our community to be able to celebrate the lives of those we serve,” says Windy. “For us, Orange Grove is a community, not a setting. We are a practice, not a promise. We are a movement, not a place. And we are so proud to have BlueCross as a part of our movement.”  

Mental health support for teen girls in Knoxville

Girl Talk, Inc. 

In Knox County, the teen pregnancy rate is roughly 8 of every 1,000 girls. Naturally, many organizations want to work to reduce that. Few, however, do that the way Girl Talk, Inc. does — by focusing on empowerment, education and overall wellness. 

Girl Talk’s middle school sleepover

“Girl Talk empowers girls to become their best selves,” says Denetria Moore, founder and executive director for Girl Talk, Inc. “That helps reduce the likelihood of teen pregnancy and helps our young women advance educationally. But it also means much more than that.” 

Girl Talk programming focuses on both strategic and emotional preparedness. They serve more than 400 girls annually through programs that focus on everything from college and career awareness to mentoring, life preparation and self-esteem. In all measurable ways, Girl Talk is working. 

“For our 2020-21 graduating class, our teen pregnancy rate is zero,” says Denetria. “Our high school graduation rate is 100%, compared to Knox County’s 91%. And every one of our Girl Talk graduates is going on to post-secondary education or training, compared to 34% of Tennesseans.”

Mind over matters

Positive results like these are a direct result of prioritizing mental health, Denetria says. During the pandemic, when girls began to report an increased need for that support, Girl Talk took action. 

They established partnerships with local mental-health providers to offer monthly individual counseling sessions for girls enrolled in their 1:1 Mentoring & Signature Events Program. Supported by a $6,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield Community Trust, this program:

  • Targets girls who have significant barriers to accessing mental health services, and 
  • Covers costs associated with therapeutic group activities that they facilitate in house.

“We feel strongly that a girl’s mental wellness directly impacts her ability to be her best self,” says Denetria.

“Through this collaboration, we’ve seen an increased number of girls getting access to mental health support, and we’ve had a greater opportunity to engage our girls in safe and healing spaces. It’s so important for them to be able to come together and share life’s ups and downs, and for us to help them lay out a roadmap for success.” 

Cafecito: A Cup of Coffee for Conexión Américas

Conexión Américas

How much can you do over a cup of coffee? If you’re Conexión Américas, the answer is a lot.

Conexión Américas co-executive directors Tara Lentz and Martha Silva

Cafecito: A Cup of Coffee for Conexión Américas is our largest annual fundraiser,” says Tara Lentz, co-executive director. “We held our 2022 breakfast in May at Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom.”

Two decades of togetherness

Conexión Américas was founded in 2002 by Renata Soto, María Clara Mejía and José González. The three came together to answer a question they’d heard from many in their community: Who is welcoming Latino immigrant families to Middle Tennessee? 

At the time, the answer was often no one. Conexión Américas changed that. Today, the organization reaches more than 10,000 individuals and families each year by:

  • Supporting people who want to start businesses
  • Helping people improve their English
  • Supporting children so they can succeed in school and go to college
  • Offering assistance with home buying 
  • Helping people become integrated into Nashville’s society, culture and economy

Support from local organizations is crucial to all of this, says Tara, including the $5,000 they received from the BlueCross BlueShield Community Trust. 

“It’s never been more important for us to actively build a welcoming community,” says Tara. “Support from allies like BlueCross is key to creating opportunities where Latino families can belong, contribute and succeed.”

Works of Heart

Memphis Child Advocacy Center

“Love is always our theme for Works of Heart, which is an art auction and party we hold every February around Valentine’s Day. Romance, parenting, lost love, grief — we’ve seen so much creativity from renowned regional artists in our 30 years of heart-inspired artwork,” says Beryl Wight, communications and grants manager for the Memphis Child Advocacy Center.

A Works of Heart valentine by artist Mary Long

“We offer all of our artists a small wooden heart as a canvas,” she adds.

While the wooden hearts offer inspiration, artists don’t have to use them. Most years, the auction includes everything from painting and sculpture to jewelry and mixed media. And all funds raised support the Child Advocacy Center’s mission: to help victims of child sexual abuse and other severe abuse by promoting safety through prevention, community collaboration, and a team approach to healing and justice. 

In 2022, those valentines raised nearly $70,000 for the children served by the center  — a total that includes $5,000 donated by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust.

“Works of Heart is made possible by generous sponsors like BlueCross, and it’s fueled by a hardworking committee and volunteers,” says Beryl. 

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