Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer

There was coordination, camaraderie and pooled resources – supplies, labor, and finances. There was a gathering of men, women and children, each with their specific role, who in the end celebrated success with food and fellowship. The magnificent result – another stately barn built to supply the immediate needs of one family. This cycle was replicated successfully many times in the early days.

Angel Medical Center Chaplain Bonnie Peggs recently orchestrated a modern day concept of the old barn raising called Healthy Neighbors Network (HNN). This Macon County initiative is similar to the multi-faceted network in her personal life. As a chaplain for both Angel Hospital and a volunteer chaplain for the Franklin Police Department; as president of the board of REACH dealing with domestic violence; as a member of the Lions Club and as a school coach both focusing on children; she is qualified with both a “birds-eye” view and a ground view of community needs in Macon County. 

Not one to wait for solutions, Peggs sought out and discovered a program that would be more connective for those in need and those willing and able to provide resources. Thus began several trips for Peggs and selected colleagues to consult and train with a similar Memphis-based program that became the catalyst for the Mission Health-sponsored HNN program in Macon County.

“I am one of those people who doesn’t wait for something to find me,” said Peggs. “You think about how we can become neighbor-to-neighbor again, that we can reach out to help people and lend a helping hand in whatever area it may look like.”

The Arizona native, a former associate pastor who also holds a degree in counseling, has found much to do within the community she loves and that has embraced her since moving to Franklin in 2008. HNN is one of the most special, and was launched with three churches that already had benevolence ministries: First Baptist, First Presbyterian and First United Methodist. 

“We want a liaison from each church and agency, and we give them access to the computer application which we call the Healthy Neighbors Network,” said Peggs.  “That way if somebody comes into your church and asks for assistance, they fill out one page, and we are only asking for their name, [their age and members of the household], their phone number, and their address. Say a family comes in and they need help with a medical bill; and the church says ‘well, we can’t help with that, we don’t have funding for that, but I can put you into our Healthy Neighbors Network and that goes out to everybody who’s in it.’ One church can say ‘I can help with $100,’ another church can say ‘I can help with $200.’ That way we maintain the person’s dignity, and they only have to tell their story once. They don’t have to tell it every place they go, and we’re better able to streamline the community resources. We don’t put their names. We just put a post – it’s called the Bulletin Board. We just say, ‘we have a person who needs’ [whatever].”

“The bulletin board is through the HNN program. You can see all the bulletins that have been posted. When somebody posts a need, it goes out, and then a liaison [from a church or agency] gets a notice that there is something on the bulletin board. They have to have a password to get in.”

All liaisons are trained by HNN to make sure they understand the nuances of the program, but liaison volunteers are trained through their respective agencies and churches for their volunteer criteria are trained by HNN on how to use the program, including privacy standards such as not putting in the person’s name.  

The multi-faceted program is designed to help people, while allowing small churches and churches with specific ministry areas to participate according to their abilities. Since beginning, Peggs has discovered churches with wood ministries who deliver wood for heat, ramp ministries to assist the handicap when Habitat is over-burdened, and other niche areas.

Her desire is to get all 120 churches and the agencies in Macon County in HNN to maximize all their efforts. So far, 20 churches and agencies such as CareNet, Macon County Public Health, REACH of Macon County, Macon County New Beginnings and the Crawford Senior Center are on board. Another agency, the Community Paramedics program, has already identified 63 people that they visit every week. Coordinator Joy Gibson noted the viability by citing one example of an elderly man whose home was over 100 degrees, and the agency found a window air conditioner for him. 

“Not only will we get the people who need help, we will get the people who volunteer,” said Peggs. “Because we know in our community, there are people who are lonely and it’s not that they need financial help, but they need somebody to visit them. My husband passed away not too long ago, and I would no more know how to use the chain saw than the man in the moon, but I could say, ‘Is there somebody out there who could come cut whatever?  I have a chain saw; I just don’t know how to use it.’”

Tammy Walker, a social worker at Angel and HNN liaison for First Assembly church, has a unique perspective from both sides. First Assembly has a food pantry two days a week, but on other days, Walker or any other church’s liaison can look into HNN and find other social or medical resources for food, transportation, refrigerators for medication, backpacks for children, companionship, or even help moving furniture around. There are many yet unchartered needs to identify.

“The coordination is great, too,” said Walker. “Being a small church, we couldn’t meet their whole needs. With a bit here and a bit there, we get success.  Rather than sending the client all over town, we do the legwork.” 

Walker says not everyone is hooked into a church, so it’s exciting to think they would have options. Also, people want to help but sometimes don’t know where to go or how to begin.  

“People do want to help, sometimes they just don’t know how or where,” said Walker. “It’s helping people, but it’s connecting people that want to volunteer. In my small church, I see people who want to help, but we don’t have a specific ministry. So this is a good way to put them to work and find things they want to do. I think this will help the churches become stronger and in better fellowship with each other.”

“I was an associate pastor for 20 years in a large church and realized the challenge trying to connect them to do the things that are most fulfilling to them,” said Peggs. “So this is something that will fulfill people. It will help and give people that sense of ‘I am really doing something worthwhile.’”

Hurdles Overcome

“One of the barriers I’m running into is I’ll call a church about helping Healthy Neighbors Network, but their pastor has a full-time job, their pastorate is a part-time job, and they don’t have a voice mail or an answering machine in the office,” said Peggs. “We’re continuing to try to get the word out to them.” 

HHN didn’t have a form in Spanish, so the health department facilitated getting one written in Spanish.

The community investment team from Mission was instrumental in adapting the computer program so potential clients could sign the form online, eliminating the hard copy. 

Peggs thinks probably part of the problem is when people hear that the hospital is involved, people think they are trying to get information about them. When in fact, they ask for very minimal information and do not ask for Social Security numbers. She emphasized that there is no connection between HNN and any systems of the hospitals. 

“This program is all about the people in our community,” said Peggs. “We are blessed that Mission is willing to give us the funds to pay for the license for every one of our churches. The reality is that if we didn’t have Mission, our doors wouldn’t be open, and we wouldn’t have so many things.

 “So we’re developing the things we hadn’t thought about as we started this program during the February 2008 roll-out,” said Peggs.  “We’re like ‘oops’ and so we’re working through each and every one of those.”

“We also want to make sure we’re not duplicating,” said Walker. “That’s important too, because you don’t want to be asked to meet the same need. There’s some accountability there. It may seem to be a bad word, but it’s needed because people need to take some responsibility. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work through that and say, ‘We’re just trying to meet your needs. Let’s not save up for the next time, and trust us that we’re going to be here.’”

 Next Steps

“We are already into the thousands of dollars of what those goods and services are,” said Peggs. “So we are already successful because we know we’ve already had a lot of people who have been helped. We just want to be more successful. It’s just the growth. We just need to keep growing, and we need to keep getting the word out. We need people to call me and say ‘we want to be a part of this.’ Whether they are an agency or a church, we just want to hear from them.”  

“We will continue working to identify needs that are all across the board from being picked up, to getting your prescription, to getting a ride home from the doctor’s or hospital, to people who need stairs up into their trailer,” said Peggs. “ I think the sky’s the limit.”

Since this is the first in the state, after working through as many bugs as possible, Peggs and her group want to expand to Blue Ridge and sister hospitals then go to one of the neighboring counties to share the model, including all notes and trials and errors. In the meantime, they will continue to have liaison meetings to troubleshoot, acknowledge successes and continue to encourage community participation.   

“I have spoken to the Macon Baptist Association, and this last week I went to the Cowee Community Development Association,” said Peggs. “I spoke with the people there about their concerns, then they were excited. I spoke at Resurrection Lutheran one Sunday morning about it. So, if people ask me to come speak, I’m there.“

“We have such a great community, and I think this is just the community to pilot this program,” said Peggs. “I want people to understand. I want churches to say, ‘Yes, we want to be a part of this. We want to make a difference in Franklin. We know what a great community we live in and we are blessed to say we live here.’

“We want more churches, agencies and volunteers to be part of this. Mission will pay for the license, so it’s not a cost for the churches, especially for our smaller churches. We have the funding to be able to pay for a license for Healthy Neighbors Network. This way I’m hoping pastors will read this and say, ‘I’ll call her.’ And it may touch volunteers who are looking to do something.”

Peggs said her father always told her to give away her light not her oil. As her community work, particularly with children, has refilled her well, she encourages others to help light up HNN in Macon County to keep the wells full. For more information on HNN, call (828)349-6639.