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These Boomers Run Their Whole Town

Volunteer power gives residents service and saves their village money

By Bob Smietana | August 14, 2014
library
A visitor to the public library at Tellico Village browses the stacks
Photo courtesy of Brent Cline

LOUDON COUNTY, Tenn. — There’s just one rule for volunteers in the 200 or so clubs and organizations at Tellico Village in east Tennessee:
 
Do your job.
 
“Nobody cares about who you used to be,” said Joe Bogardus, a retired marketing executive and volunteer consultant with Tellico Village’s property owner’s association. “If you said you’d show up early and set up the chairs, you better do it.”
 
That kind of pitch-in-and-get-things done attitude permeates life at Tellico Village, a community of 7,000 in foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Originally developed by Cooper Communities, started in the in late 1980s, the Village has been resident-run for the past six years. It boasts a healthy balance sheet, with about $3 million in reserves and 70 volunteers.
 
70 Volunteers Keep the Village Humming

Those working for free — all residents — run the unincorporated community’s board and advisory committees. They manage the finances and public services such as roads and the water systems, along with the village’s golf course and recreation facilities. Those services and improvements, like the Wellness Center built in 2008, were paid for out the monthly assessment for residents, usually about $100 a month.
 
The community works, said John Cherry, public relations manager for Tellico Village, because everyone lends a hand.
 
“The biggest benefit is that residents steer the ship,” Cherry said. 
 
Most of the residents, known as villagers, are active adults or retirees. Many came from other parts of country, drawn by a moderate climate, low cost of living and beautiful countryside.

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They’ve found new friends and a new home, and for at least one, the chance to rediscover a childhood dream.
 
Finally A Firefighter
 
Bill Rafferty, 72, had two dreams growing up. He wanted to steer a Navy ship and he wanted to be a fireman. “Like a lot of kids, I wanted to drive a fire truck,” said Rafferty.
 
Rafferty lived out his first dream out in a 25-year naval career. The second had to wait until he moved to Tellico Village seven years ago.
 
Today, Rafferty is a firefighter for the Tellico Village Volunteer Fire Department, where he responds to medical emergencies, helps put out fires and drives one of the department’s 38,000-pound fire engines.
 
Over the past five years, the 35-member fire department, which includes four female firefighters, responded to an average of 453 calls annually. Most — about 85 percent — were for medical emergencies, though the department has put out more than a few small fires. Among the most recent was over the Fourth of July weekend, when the barges used in a local firework show went up in flames.
 
They’ve delivered a baby and, with the help of automated external defibrillators, saved the lives of several residents whose hearts had stopped beating.
 
It’s not an easy job. The volunteer firefighters, who range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-70s, have to carry about 60 pounds of turnout gear, along with hauling 5-inch fire hoses.
 
They’re constantly refining their skills in monthly training, annual training retreats and ongoing medical training.  All are trained on driving the fire trucks and have to pass a state test.

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“You can’t just jump in the truck and turn on the ignition,” said Rafferty.
 
Everyone Helps and Kindness Spreads
 
Other volunteers at Tellico Village serve in a quieter way, through small acts of kindness.

The computer club refurbishes used laptops and donates them by the dozens to kids in the Louden County schools. Another group delivers books to shut-ins. The woodworker’s group makes hundreds of toys every Christmas for Toys for Tots. Others volunteer for local charities, put on cultural events or donate their time on the board of the Village property owners association.
 
Bill Hartman, who worked at General Motors for 40 years, now is a member of the GM retirees club at Tellico Village. Most weeks, he chauffeurs shut-ins and other neighbors who might need a helping hand. “We volunteer to give rides to people who probably shouldn’t be driving,” he said.

Hartman also gives tours to potential villagers and builds sets for a Tellico Community Players, a theater group.
 
He credits a program called “New Villagers” with helping build and sustain the community service spirit at Tellico Village. All new residents are invited to join the program’s monthly social and informational events. Along with making new friends, newcomers are introduced to a wide range of clubs and volunteer opportunities. They’re assigned a mentor to help them connect to the community. 
 
“If there’s something you don’t know how to do, there’s always someone around to help,” Hartman said.
 
Even though most villagers are retired, Hartman said, they still want to be involved in their community. They want to relax and enjoy retirement, but within limits. “I love golf,” he said. “But I don’t love golf that much.”
 
A Home-Grown Library
 
Sometimes, small volunteer projects grow into something much bigger. In 1987, a group formed a book club, and later started a small lending library. That led to the founding of the Friends of the Tellico Village Library in 1992. By 1997, the program had grown so large that it became part of the Loudon County system and was opened to those who live outside the village.
 
Today, the Public Library at Tellico Village has about 6,500 registered patrons and services an area of the county with 13,000 residents. It operates out of a 6,442-square foot building, which opened in 2012.
 
Most of the money to build the library came from donations. The county funds one full-time librarian and one part-time staffer and the Friends organization raises the rest of the operating funds, including mortgage payments.
 
Last year, volunteers donated more than 4,000 hours of their time. They run the circulation desk, re-shelve books and manage educational programs.
 
Rich Seymour, president of the Friends of Tellico Village Library, said that he and other board members are most proud of a summer reading program that drew about 60 kids from the county to the library.
 
The library also runs a summer program for Camp Tellico, which provides programs for children who live in the village as well as grandchildren of residents.
 
Running the educational programs for kids and adults keeps volunteer and former college professor Billie Whitney active, she said. It also helps her and other residents keep their brains sharp while bringing enjoyment to their lives. 
 
Still, it’s not always a glamorous job. Along with raising money, finding volunteers and planning new programs, there are lots of mundane tasks left to do.
 
“Today it’s my turn to run the vacuum,” Whitney said.

Bob Smietana is a freelance writer based in Nashville and a former reporter at the Tennessean newspaper. He is currently president  of the Religion Newswriters Association.