Perennial community volunteer Rupa Blackwell was honored as the 2018 Citizen of the Year by the Tullahoma Area Chamber of Commerce at its annual membership celebration and awards banquet on Friday night.
Blackwell was honored for her constant dedication to charitable causes both in and out of town, including phenomenal fundraising efforts for two cycling-based charities and her committed assistance to community functions.
Introduced by her friend Alderman Robin Dunn, Blackwell was heralded for passion for helping others.
“Tullahoma’s Citizen of the Year has an energy that literally spreads from coast to coast,” Dunn said. “Over the years, this woman has been responsible for directly or indirectly raising over $300 million for the health and well-being of those in need.”
Dunn spoke of Blackwell’s service as a logistical coordinator, events specialist and fundraising chair for “two of the largest cycling fundraising events in the country.”
Blackwell has been involved with the California-based cycling fundraiser AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles dedicated to raising money for HIV/AIDS research and reducing HIV infections, as well as the New York-based Cycle for Survival, an indoor-cycling movement designed to raise money for rare cancer research.
According to Dunn, Blackwell has helped between 1,600 and 3,000 cyclists travel the AIDS/LifeCycle route safely thanks, in large part, to her efforts as a logistical coordinator. Through her efforts with Cycle for Survival, Blackwell and her team have raised over $800,000 for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
[Editor's Note: Although Dunn credited $800,000 to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Blackwell said that money was actually raised for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.]
On the homefront, Blackwell has helped numerous community organizations, including the Tullahoma Arts Council, Tullahoma Day Care and the Tullahoma Municipal/Regional Planning Commission.
“Frankly,” Dunn said with a laugh, “saying that this person is supported by a number of organizations is like saying that the ‘special sauce’ is supported by the Big Mac. She is the ‘special sauce’; she is the sounding board for a number of leaders; she is the voice of reason in an otherwise battling room; she is nothing short of brilliant – a fierce fighter for justice and an embodiment of love.”
Blackwell’s dedication to helping charitable causes was further evident on Friday night, as she was unable to attend the chamber ceremony due to her work with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Her husband, Justin, and daughter, Avery, were on hand to accept the award on her behalf.
On Tuesday morning, Blackwell said she was “shocked” to learn she had been chosen for the award.
“It feels weird to be recognized for honestly just doing what I love to do,” she said.
She added that Dunn’s introduction seemed “foreign” to her, as “I’m just the girl at the fundraising event with a walkie-talkie … making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
“You work long, hard hours in my industry, but at the end of the day you know you’ve helped to fund things like cancer research, HIV support services or preventative care,” she said. “Knowing that, it doesn’t feel like a job. It just feels like what I should be doing as a human.”
Despite the shock of it all, Blackwell said she was “humbled by and thankful for the love I felt Friday.”
“I’m so thankful to be raising my family in this amazing town,” she said. “My heart is so full.”
Also receiving awards during the celebration were a number of local businesses and business people. The chamber annually recognizes both a Business of the Year and a Small Business of the Year, as well as smaller, individual recognitions for chamber members who go above and beyond in the name of community engagement.
Each year, the chamber president awards one chamber member with a special designation for their work with the chamber of the past year.
This year’s President’s Award with to Danielle Middleton, of Coffee County Bank, for her hard work with the chamber over the last year and her dedication to the community.
Business of the Year
L & H Distributing Company was honored as the 2018 Business of the Year by the chamber, shocking L & H President Bob Hennigan and his two adult children – Robert and Caroline – who serve as vice presidents for the company.
Chamber Director Hope Sartain acknowledged the leaps and bounds L & H has made over the last year, including embarking on a $5 million expansion, as well as the company’s continued commitment to the community.
“When we think of a business we want to honor and thank for their service,” she said, “we ask ourselves, ‘Who has a history of dynamic leaders who have contributed to the success of Tullahoma? Who is making an investment into our community? Who is giving back through the donation of time as well as monetary donations?’ Tonight, we honor and thank L & H Distributing for all of that.
“The support they give to our community varies, from a consistent top sponsor of the 41A Music Festival, to buying gifts for children in need at Christmas,” Sartain said.
CEO Business Partner of the Year
For its dedication as the “longest-serving and most active” partnership with Robert E. Lee Elementary School, Traders Bank was named the 2018 C.E.O Business Partner of the Year.
Accepting the award on behalf of the bank were Nancy Fuller, who was also named the 2018 Chamber Ambassador of the Year, and Traders President and CEO Tommy Anderton.
Presented by Tullahoma Community Coordinator Winston Brooks, the winners of the 2018 Extra-Miler Award were Kristin Luna and her husband Scott Van Velsor through their business Odinn Media.
According to Brooks, the duo have “a genuine enthusiasm for our community” and see where the community can go in the future.
Luna said she was shocked to be awarded the designation, joking that it “explains why my mom came.”
“I don’t know what to say, really, other than my granddad came here … and really invested in this community,” she said.
After living in a number of places larger and more exotic than Tullahoma, Luna said it was her husband’s idea to move back to town.
“He heard about all the great things that were happening in this state and this community in terms of tech and … aerospace, and we just wanted to be a part of it,” she said.
Luna said she was excited to move forward with the city and its leadership.
“Thank you guys for honoring us.”
Small Business of the Year
This year’s Small Business of the Year award went to The Book Shelf, the chamber announced Friday night.
Although it is a small nonprofit business, The Book Shelf has managed to make a large impact in the community.
“It has provided a great service in the community,” said outgoing Chamber President Lenore Blackwell. “Since the books are donated by the community, they are sold at very reasonable prices.”
All the proceeds raised from book sales are used to promote literacy in the community, sometimes through Little Free Libraries in the area and other times through donated books to schools in the community.
The Book Shelf also raises money to provide a free computer and printer to those living at Blue Monarch cottages, Blackwell said.
Accepting the award on behalf of The Book Shelf and the Literacy Council was Dot Watson.
For her many appearances and dedication to chamber functions, Nancy Fuller was named the 2018 Chamber Ambassador of the Year.
“All of you deserve an award, but one ambassador truly did stand out in 2018,” said Michael Reid, the marketing coordinator for the chamber.
Between volunteering for as many ribbon cuttings as possible and helping out with other chamber functions, Reid said Fuller had gone above and beyond her duties as a chamber ambassador throughout the year.
Fuller thanked her employer, Traders Bank, for allowing her to take so much time away from the bank in order to perform her duties. She also thanked the chamber for allowing her to get out in the community more.
Erin McCullough may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.