Tommie Erwin, 79, gathers toys at Nolan Elementary before delivering them to area children battling cancer. Erwin is this year's regional Jefferson Award winner for December.Staff Photo by Dan Henry
Even approaching her 80th birthday, Tommie Erwin hasn't slowed down in her quest to lighten the load for families confronting pediatric cancer.
From hand-delivering Christmas gifts to families who can't afford them to helping struggling parents pay a gas bill or avoid foreclosure, Erwin has been an unsung hero for hundreds of local families for 30 years, friends say.
"She's a dynamo. If something needs to be done, she gets it done," said Donna Gaines. She volunteers with Erwin in the Chattanooga chapter of the Candlelighters, which provides money and support for families dealing with pediatric cancer.
"She doesn't give orders," Gaines said. "She's there working as hard as everybody else. In fact, she's probably working a lot harder than everybody else. People just want to work with her and help her. She instills that in people."
Erwin, who lives in East Ridge, is the regional Jefferson Award winner for December. Gaines nominated Erwin for the award, which recognizes outstanding work in community service and volunteerism.
A founder of the local Candlelighters chapter, Erwin has spent countless hours working a concession stand at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga arena, raising money. She's organized fundraisers and events for families and children with cancer, including an annual Christmas dinner.
More than 250 attended the dinner earlier this month, and Erwin ensured every child had a Christmas present to open, Gaines said.
• Click here or visit www.WRCBTV.com to fill out an online nomination form.
• Pick up a nomination form at any First Tennessee Bank location and deliver or mail to: Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN 37401, or fax to: 423-668-5001.
Erwin said her work is personal. In 1978, her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Her daughter survived, but Erwin never forgot the families she met whose lives were wrenched by illness and overwhelming financial strain.
"They have enough worry on them, worrying about, 'Is my child going to survive? Are my other children getting what they need?'" Erwin said. "If we can take just a little bit of that worry from those families, that means the world to us.
"We know we can't send them $1 million, but if we can just lighten their load a little bit, it makes a big difference."
Brandie Phillips said Erwin has been an "angel" for her and her daughter Kasadie Walker, 10, who was diagnosed with a rare spinal tumor in 2006.
Phillips — a single mother with three other children -- has had to take extended leave from work as a certified nursing assistant to care for Kasadie. Trips to Atlanta for Kasadie's surgeries and radiation treatments are costly.
Aside from providing emotional support, Erwin also organized a fundraiser to get the kids back-to-school clothes in August, and she provides them with gas cards through Candlelighters when needed, Phillips said.
Donations through Candlelighters are the only way the family can have a Christmas this year, Phillips said.
"If it wasn't for Tommie, I don't know what we would do," she said. "She's like a little angel and she don't want no credit for it. She doesn't want anybody to know."
ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Jefferson Awards were restarted locally in May by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, WRCB-TV and First Tennessee Bank.
Monthly award nominations will be taken until March 2011, when a local committee will select five honorees whose stories will be submitted to award officials in Washington, D.C. One winner will represent Chattanooga at the national Jefferson Awards banquet.
National winners are selected in four categories: elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger.
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...