CAC's Many Helping Hands

While shunning the limelight, this social services agency provides much community aid

The War on Poverty that then-President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964 has largely faded from the public consciousness, but the local entity that was formed to fight that war remains resolute and resourceful in fulfilling its mission to help needy people live a better life.

That entity is somewhat awkwardly named the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, and unless you are being reached by one or more of its diverse array of programs you may not even be aware of it. But those programs are anything but awkwardly conducted, and many of them will have a familiar ring.

Its federally funded Head Start program serves about 900 disadvantaged preschoolers. Mobile Meals, funded largely by United Way, delivers hot, nutritious lunches daily to 800 frail seniors who might not otherwise be able to continue living on their own. And during the summer months, several thousand more meals are provided at more than 60 locations to school-age children, who would otherwise be deprived of the federally funded, free lunches they get when school is in session.

CAC's fleet of 57 vans transports the infirm and handicapped who have no other means to get to their doctors' offices, and in some cases to and from their jobs. And a multi-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helps support a One Call Club for seniors that also provides other health and hygiene aids, home safety modifications, and an array of other services for which members pay a fee based on their income.

Another arm of CAC acts as a contractor dedicated to projects that upgrade the community's low-income housing stock. These include everything from weatherization and minor home repairs provided without charge to major renovations and construction of new affordable housing on blighted properties. Seven LEED-certified houses recently built in the Five Points area could serve as a model for as many as 100 more if the city is successful in getting a grant of $5 million in federal stimulus funding earmarked for neighborhood stabilization.

A Workforce Connections unit partners with the state in providing job training, counseling, and placement services at a Tennessee Career Center on University Avenue that CAC administers. And it's also overseeing a federally funded youth employment program that's providing about 500 summer jobs primarily to teenagers who will be going back to school in the fall.

In toto, and that total includes a lot of other things, CAC's annual budget of $32 million is bigger than that of any municipality in the metropolitan area outside of the city of Knoxville (and exclusive of their school systems). More than 60 percent of the funding comes from Washington, much of it channeled through the state, city, and county governments. The city of Knoxville and Knox County directly contribute another 13 percent, and most of the balance comes from private contributions, attesting to CAC's fund-raising prowess.

With a full-time staff of about 400, CAC is among the community's larger employers. But as with monetary contributions, it also relies heavily on contributions of time by volunteers. To be exact, 335,612 hours of volunteer time were logged last year in support of the agency's multifaceted endeavors.

Presiding over all of this from CAC's imposing headquarters building on Western Avenue is a woman who has devoted herself to fulfillment of its mission almost since inception.

Prior to taking the helm as executive director in 1998, Barbara Kelly served for 30 years as deputy to the late L.T. Ross, after whom the headquarters building is named. While she's empathetic and self-effacing, Kelly is also a strong administrator who has surrounded herself with a team of veteran deputies. Among them: Joyce Farmer, the longtime director of Head Start; and Barbara Monty, director of the Office on Aging.

In shunning the limelight for herself and CAC as such, Kelly says "We don't want to be perceived as a large bureaucracy. We want people to see and interface with that portion of the agency that provides the services that meet their needs. We have to have program participants who are willing to let us into their lives, and we try to personalize those programs as much as we can."

A whole lot of them will attest to her success in doing so.