Terry Work is a Tennessee county's helping hand

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 4:24 PM

Christmas will be a struggle this year for Terry Work.

The 51-year-old lives off a $670-a-month disability payment. Her husband had to quit his job as a contractor after a stroke three years ago. The couple share their home with two adult children, three grandchildren and another young man who has nowhere else to go.

The family has sold everything from jewelry to their RV as they try to save their house from foreclosure.

Her story may sound depressingly familiar. Nonetheless, Work is helping hundreds of other struggling families have a happy holiday.

Work founded and directs Helping Hands of Hickman County, a nonprofit that last year helped around 6,000 people with things like utility bills and medication. The charity hasn't finished its year-end report for 2009 yet, but bookkeeper Shirley Scott estimates Helping Hands will have aided nearly 10,000 people this year. That doesn't include people who use the food pantry, which gives away about 10,000 pounds of food each month.

Work takes no salary and the charity is run completely by volunteers except for Scott, who was hired earlier this year. The nonprofit also gets help from workers who have to perform community service in exchange for government aid and jail inmates on work release.

Work started the charity in 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina.

"I was sitting at home and wanted to do something," she said. So she took in a displaced father and son and helped them get back on their feet.

"Somebody told me, 'You're so good at this. Why not help Hickman County?'" she recalled.

Not long after that she rented a small building where she started the thrift store that pays for most of Helping Hands' charity work. It has expanded twice since then and Work is hoping to buy land for a larger building.

"I have an inoperable hernia and they told me I wouldn't live many more years," she said. "They (doctors) told me to go home and die, and I probably would have without this. This gives me a purpose."

Board chairman Brad Martin, the editor of the Hickman County Times, first met Work when he was looking for stories about Hurricane Katrina.

He calls Work "relentless" and says when she sees someone in need she won't stop until she finds a way to help. He relates the story of how she was able to get a new mobile home donated to a man who had lost his in a fire.

"All people can do is say, 'No,' when you ask," Work said. "Most the time people say, 'Yes.'"

Unlike some charities that have taken a hit from the recession, Helping Hands is doing well this year. The thrift store has seen an increase in both customers and donations and has taken in more than $70,000.

"We've been having a half price sale for three weeks to create space because people have been giving us so much stuff," Martin said. "We've been able to help as much as we want to."

Helping Hands most often provides assistance with things like utility and water bills, gasoline and prescriptions, but Work tries to help anyone in need however she can.

Over the years that has included introducing a woman in need of housing to a couple in need of a caregiver for a new mother confined to her bed and her baby. The woman moved in with the family and the father was able to go back to work.

More recently, an acquaintance told Work about a young couple with a terminally ill baby. Work cried all day after she met them.

"They've got twin 15-month-olds, and a 2-year-old and they're facing a baby's death at Christmas," she said.

She gave them gas money, clothes, food and baby bottles and told them to come back in a couple of days for more. She is also starting a fund to help the family with funeral expenses.

"I'm going to take care of them," she said. "I'm going to make sure they have a good Christmas."