Adalynn McLaughlin

Judy Jenkins volunteers at East Lincoln Elementary School, helping students develop their reading skills. Here, she reads with Adalynn McLaughlin, a first-grader in Dawn Kane’s class.

Judy Jenkins sees volunteering as a way to ‘pay back’ her blessings

To “pay forward” all her blessings, Judy Jenkins has dedicated her life to volunteering.

Donating her time for worthy causes was on top of her bucket list, and when Jenkins retired, she moved from Virginia to Tullahoma to do just that.

“I came to Tullahoma at a request of a friend, who told me how unique the area was,” Jenkins said. “My friend felt there were so many opportunities here to get involved after retirement.”

Jenkins spent her professional life as a nurse.

“I had a great career and wonderful experiences with patients and family members,” Jenkins said. “And I wanted to pay back for that opportunity to be so blessed myself.”

So she moved to Tullahoma and started participating in a number of activities.

“There is a plethora of opportunities here, and the more I got involved, the more impressed I was with the volunteers. I am not a single individual – there are thousands of individuals donating time at clinics, libraries, senior center. So I felt I was joining a group of great people who want to make a difference.”


Reading with students

Jenkins has volunteered at East Lincoln Elementary School for three years.

“I live down the street from East Lincoln Elementary and drove past it every day watching the kids walk to school,” Jenkins said. “I have always loved children – I have five of my own – and I wondered if I could volunteer at the school.”

She asked school officials if she could help in any way.

“Volunteers shouldn’t demand what they should do, they should make themselves available and say ‘I will do whatever you need,’” Jenkins said. “So they placed me in a first-grade class, where I had anywhere from 16 to 19 kids. The teacher is in the classroom at all times.”

There is a reading area for Jenkins in the classroom, with a desk and several chairs. Jenkins sits at the desk and children join her to read with her.

“I get to call the children, one at a time, and they read to me,” she said. “We get an opportunity to make sure the pronunciation of the words is correct. Or if the children are having trouble with a word, I give them a synonym, or an opposite, and sort of play games with them.”

Children are eager to read with Jenkins because she shows interest in each of them and celebrates their successes.

“In essence, I’m not a teacher, I am a grandmother, so it works really well,” Jenkins said.

This year, in recognition of the time she has donated to help children improve their skills, Jenkins received a special recognition.

“They asked me to be a PTO (parent-teacher organization) officer, and I don’t even have children in the school,” Jenkins said. “I was honored.”

“I feel passionate about how wonderful that school is,” Jenkins said. “It is a Title 1 school – the kids are very low-income – but the spirit, the love and the learning that goes on at that school is amazing.”

Jenkins said she usually reads with the students twice a week, spending about two hours with the children in 15-minute sessions each.

“I get to do the fun things – I give stickers and bring cupcakes,” Jenkins said. “I’m making a winter hat for each kid. It’s just to show the kids they are loved, really and truly. Some of the children live in harder situations, but they get a hug and they give me a hug. I even get to eat lunch with them occasionally. We get to talk, just like you do at a dinner table.”

Jenkins also plays games with the students. The games are fun and encourage creativity.

“I paint rocks at home, I take them and hide them in the classroom, and the children have to find them,” she said. “And the kids have to write a story about the rock they found. The rock might have a baseball, basketball, a frog, turtle or pumpkin on it, and the students have to write a little story, and we get to read it together.”

One of her favorite aspects of volunteering at the school is seeing the smiles of the students in the hallway.

“I smile at each child and say ‘good morning,’ and I compliment the teacher on how well behaved the students are,” she said.

Dawn Kane, the teacher of the class Jenkins reads with, expressed gratitude.

“Ms. Jenkins is an absolutely wonderful person,” Kane said. “It’s such a blessing to have her come into the classroom and read with each student. The kids absolutely thrive under her. When they see her come into the classroom, they get so excited. And they know she loves them. I am so blessed she chose my class to come and volunteer.”


Supporting other causes

Jenkins is involved in several organizations, focusing on helping those in need and battling drug addiction.

“One of my passions is One Day of Hope, where I’m a board member,” she said.

One Day of Hope is a nonprofit that organizes annual events to offer free items and services to individuals in need. Every year, the organization provides groceries, clothing, family portraits, haircuts, medical and dental screenings, and career services to thousands of people.

She also sits on the board of Trinity Care Center, a nonprofit that provides day care services to adults who can’t stay home by themselves all day.

Jenkins also volunteers with Compassus of Tullahoma, an organization that provides hospice care to patients living in Tullahoma, Manchester and Shelbyville.

“I love to be around patients,” Jenkins said. “I think I can give information and care to patients and their families, and give them the opportunity to feel somebody is there and loves them.”

Jenkins has also joined the fight against drug addiction.

“I am really passionate about the anti-drug movement in Tennessee because I did lose a daughter to drug abuse,” Jenkins said. “Tennessee is one of the worst states in the nation – we lose 1,600 people a year. They are somebody’s babies, and we are losing them senselessly.”

She also helps Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, an organization out of New York.

“I speak to parents by telephone – parents that are so distraught and don’t know what to do,” Jenkins said “These parents need somebody, who’s been there done that, unfortunately. They need somebody who has lost a child to drugs that can say to them, ‘You need to re-focus your energy around positivity for yourself and for our child; you need to make sure you continue to love your child even though they may do horrible things,’” Jenkins said.

Jenkins tries to counsel them in a positive way and give them support, she said.


It’s her calling

“My goal in retirement was to pay forward the wonderful things that I got,” Jenkins said. “When I moved to Tullahoma, I found this was a unique place with loving and caring people, but there was a high level of child obesity and poverty, and a high level of frustration and lack of hope in some individuals.”

So she wanted to donate her time, hoping that if she can brighten someone’s day, she can positively impact someone’s life.

“I just wanted to put all my time and energy to do that,” Jenkins said. “I feel it’s my calling.”

Although she was already volunteering when she was employed, after her retirement, she could dedicate all her time to helping others.

“I had to earn a living, like everybody else, and although I volunteered in homeless shelters and similar things in Virginia, I wasn’t able to do it full time,” she said. “Now I do it from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, and I love it.”

Elena Cawley can be reached via email at