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A volunteer distributes supplies at an Operation Share drive-thru distribution event at the outset of the coronavirus scare. That day, the organization filled 300 vehicles with food and other necessities.

When the coronavirus outbreak began to impact Scott County, Operation Share was at the forefront of helping the community meet its needs.

Material used to make protective masks that were handed out at various places like medical clinics came from Operation Share. Barrels of bleach that have been used to disinfect public places came from Operation Share. Protective gloves were donated from Operation Share to Mountain People’s Health Councils to help keep nurses, providers and patients safe. Lysol and other cleaning products came from Operation Share. Hand sanitizer was distributed to local banks by Operation Share after it disappeared from retail shelves. And, just last week, an unexpected refrigerated truck of loaded with Lunchables was received by Operation Share. The food was distributed in a single day to students who aren’t receiving meals at school since classes have been canceled for weeks.

And that’s just in a time of crisis. Operation Share is by no means defined by the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, the Oneida-based non-profit distributes an average of $10 million in food and other supplies every single year. 

“Anything you can imagine, we’ve gotten through here at some point in time. You never know what it’s going to be,” said Dawn Ellis, the organization’s executive director. “It helps a lot of people get to the end of the month. We hear that all the time through our partners.”

But now Operation Share finds itself in a bind, and is turning to the community in an effort to continue its mission. Twelve years into its mission to serve the less fortunate in Scott and surrounding counties, Operation Share doesn’t need donations of food or clothing or other supplies; in fact, “We’ve been blessed. I don’t even have room right now to put up the last load we got Thursday,” Ellis said. Instead, what Operation Share needs is financial donations. Without them, it might have to close its doors, forever.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we aren’t funded by government grants,” Ellis said. “It’s all private donations.” 

Founded in 2008 under the funding umbrella of the Christian Appalachian Project, Operation Share chose to go out on its own in 2012. Since that time, the funding has always been there. But in recent years, funding from some of the organization’s largest donors has dried up. And now it’s come to the point that the organization’s future is being discussed in meetings of its board of directors.

“If we have to shut our doors, it would be huge,” Ellis said. “Every day, we hear stories about how this impacts people’s lives. We may not feed the people themselves, but we hear it from the programs that pick up. It would definitely hurt a lot of folks.”

To understand how many people Operation Share impacts, consider how many organizations it partners with. It isn’t permitted to distribute goods directly to people. Instead, it teams up with non-profits like churches to distribute food, clothing, furniture and related items. In all, the organization has 500 signed contracts. On an average day, representatives of between 17 and 20 different organizations will stop by the Operation Share warehouse in the former Jellico Grocery building to pick up.

“We partner with lots of schools, lots of churches, the fire departments … any non-profit can pick up,” Ellis said.

From there, the goods are distributed throughout the community.

“Say a church picks up, and there are 50 people at that church,” Ellis said. “When you add it up, it winds up being thousands of people we take care of.”

In addition, Operation Share helps supply a number of food banks in the area — such as Open Arms Ministries, the Pinnacle Resource Center’s food bank, the First Methodist Church food bank, and the Scott Christian Care Center food bank. 

“Several churches have an outreach component, as well, and they feed the homeless or they feed their communities,” Ellis said.

Also, the organization partners with Appalachian Life Quality Initiative for drive-thru distributions at the warehouse, where a variety of items are handed out directly to the community when they become overstocked. A popular item at those events is chips, which are often received by Operation Share in bulk. There are no questions asked, and no requirements to meet; anyone who wants to stop by will be given whatever goods are being distributed.

Operation Share has always been thrifty — even to the point of not using all of the lights in its warehouse in order to keep its electric bill down. The organization employs three people, and the rest of its 12-man operation is made up of volunteers. “If we didn’t have our volunteers, we’d be in trouble,” Ellis said.

As a result, the organization is able to operate on a minimum $60,000 annual budget. That covers payroll, insurance and utilities. 

But without the community’s help, that budget won’t be met. And that means an uncertain future.

HT Hackney is Operation Share’s landlord, leasing the Oneida warehouse to the organization for $1 per year. But the building is old, and it has substantial roof issues, with frequent leaks.

“They’re really good at sending roofers out and patching it, but they aren’t able to patch it any longer,” Ellis said of HT Hackney. “Something has to be done with our roof.”

As a result, HT Hackney was prepared to not renew Operation Share’s lease. A representative of the company drove to Oneida, set to terminate the rent agreement.

“But when he came over to see what we were all about, he was very impressed with our organization,” Ellis said. “So he’s going to fix our roof.

“I feel like if they’re going to fix our roof, we have to stay open,” she added. “That’s God’s way of saying, ‘There’s hope that you’re not shutting your doors.'”

To make a financial contribution to Operation Share, mail it to Operation Share, 200 Jellico Street, Oneida, TN 37841. Or stop by the organization’s warehouse at 200 Jellico Street and drop it off.

This story is the April 2020 installment of Profiles of a 3-Star Community, presented by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page 12 of the April 9, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.