Even after coordinating two city-wide donation drives for hurricane-ravaged communities in other states, Marie Guilliams isn’t looking for any personal credit – she’s only doing what she was called to do.
Guilliams was selected as The Tullahoma News’ Citizen of the Year, due in large part to her efforts in coordinating the donation drives for the cities of Swansboro, North Carolina, and Blountstown, Florida. The two towns were devastated earlier this year by Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, respectively, within about a month of each other.
Despite planting the idea to help in the minds of civic and religious leaders in the community, Guilliams said her acceptance of the award is really on behalf of all those who stepped up and donated their time, money and effort for those in need.
Guilliams called receiving the designation a “surprising” moment.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to deserve that,” she said. Instead, Guilliams said, the ones who truly deserved the award, in her opinion, were “all those people who responded” to the drives who really deserved the recognition.
She particularly wanted to recognize the linemen from Tullahoma Utilities Authority who made the trip to Florida to help completely rebuild the city of Blountstown’s electrical system, as well was those who transported the donated items to each location.
“I’m so glad that people in our community took time and were so kind to donate so that there was something to take down,” she said. “It’s fantastic that they community’s that generous.”
And having everyone in the community step to the plate and help out was really the most touching aspect for Guilliams, who has grown up with the spirit of service in her heart from a young age.
Growing up in a military family, Guilliams said she is no stranger to strong community ties.
In a military living community, she said, everyone is always willing to help each other out. Because everyone understands what it’s like to live without pieces of your family for extended periods of time, everyone is willing to lend a hand whenever someone needs a boost.
“The military, it can be a very close community, and you can get some fabulous friends who are life-long and always there to assist,” she said. “There was always someone in need and everybody joined together [to help].”
That spirit of giving was also instilled into her as a child from her parents. Guilliams said she remembers baking cakes as a young child and serving them, through the USO, to young Marines and Navy sailors without a place to go during the holidays.
That giving spirit hasn’t dissipated in the 20-plus years she and her family have been in Tullahoma – quite the opposite, in fact.
Since she’s been a part of the Tullahoma community, Guilliams said the entire area has been welcoming.
She credits the welcoming spirit of the community to both the character of the people who inhabit the area as well as the model of service given to the community by the Air Force Base.
“There’s a lot of service people in Tullahoma and they give of their time,” she said. “They’re very welcoming, so that was the nice thing about it.”
Helping the helpers
Again, Guilliams is quick to say she’s undeserving of the Citizen of the Year designation, though only because she was just one small part of a larger community effort.
All she was attempting to do with the drives was help those who were already helping others, she said.
“They’re the ones that I always think about, that really put their lives on the line all the time, and they see such things that you know it affects them later,” she said. “Those are the service people that I think are really underappreciated. How first responders do it, I do not know.
“I’m amazed that first responders are so considerate that, when they get that call in the middle of the night, they get up and go,” she said.
When it came to the Swansboro donation drive, Guilliams said she was especially touched by a news story she had seen about the town’s firefighters.
The story said the majority of the firefighter’s homes had been damaged by the flooding, meaning they were working nonstop without a place to return to for rest.
“They’re helping out, and their own houses are messed up,” she said. “I thought, ‘Where are they going to?'"
This same idea, of helping those who help, was what brought Guilliams to reach out and try to help the people of Blountstown, which was nearly entirely destroyed by Michael.
Guilliams heard about a Nashville woman, Jami Jo, whose father was living in the Blountstown area and was requesting help.
When she heard Jo’s father, a firefighter in another small town near Blountstown, was asking for his daughter to come down and help his community, she was alarmed.
“I knew it had to be bad,” she said, because fathers don’t usually ask for their daughters’ help.
In giving necessary supplies to communities in need, Guilliams said she hopes to teach people to be better prepared for emergency situations.
“My whole goal is to get people to be more prepared in any situation so that the emergency responders don’t have to come to every door,” she said.
It would be wonderful, she said, if people struck by hurricanes or tornadoes had enough supplies and resources stockpiled that they didn’t immediately need first responder assistance.
That way, she said, first responders could focus their time and attention on those who truly need the help, like those in need of medical assistance.
She also said she hoped neighbors would come together to help in emergency situations in order to ease the burden on first responders.
“If everybody worked together, it would be so wonderful,” she said.
That emergency preparedness is something she’s constantly reminding her friends about, she added.
“I’m one of those who are always trying to get people … to get a couple extra cans this time … get a couple extra batteries,” she said. “It helps people to help.”
Helping people to help people is what Guilliams is going to continue to do as long as she’s able.
Erin McCullough may be reached at email@example.com.