During the holiday season, it’s especially important to recognize a treasured gift: the selfless act of volunteering. Get to know three BlueCross team members who devote their time and talents throughout the year and support the hopes and dreams of the next generation.
No Rest for This Pajama Collector
No stranger to getting projects off the ground, Lanise Hutchins helps the BlueCare Tennessee team implement initiatives and run programs more efficiently. In 2015, she spearheaded the first Pajama Drive at BlueCross.
“We adopted a classroom at East Side Elementary and offered to contribute pajamas for Polar Express Day,” Lanise says. “That’s the last day before the holiday break when students are allowed to wear their pajamas, have hot chocolate and popcorn, and watch the movie.
“A lot of these kids come from families who can’t afford pajamas,” she adds. “This project is so meaningful to me because I can remember what it was like to be one of those kids.”
Thanks to Lanise’s efforts to raise awareness and urge colleague participation that first year, stacks of pajamas grew around her desk—and donations for one classroom quickly ballooned into enough for 20 classrooms, and more than 350 kids in total. The cards and letters she has received veer from heartwarming to heartbreaking.
“One student wrote and said, ‘We appreciate that you’re doing this for all of us, so that everyone is included,’” Lanise remembers. “Another said she couldn’t believe we were doing this for them, like they weren’t worthy. I’ve kept every single card.”
More pajama party invites
In 2016, Lanise arranged for two more schools with economically disadvantaged students, Clifton Hills and Hardy, to take part. The result? More than 200 BlueCross employees contributed 1,666 pairs of PJs.
The 2017 Pajama Drive is underway, but Lanise is already thinking ahead to 2018. “My next move is to go statewide,” she says.
“I’d love to expand our drive to include a school in every region where BlueCross has an office.”
Tackling Life Lessons
As a junior at Tyner High School, Aaron Mills learned an important lesson from his English teacher. “Mrs. Diane Whitaker used to say, ‘Make sure you reach back and help someone,’” Aaron recalls. “That’s a mantra I’ve tried to live by ever since.”
For the past seven years, Aaron—who played defensive line at Carson-Newman College from 1989 to 1993—has given back to the community by volunteering with Kids & Pros. The nonprofit was started by former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry and sponsors youth football camps throughout the Southeast. Volunteers like Aaron and coaches from UTC work with kids aged six to 13—not only on football fundamentals, but on integrity, perseverance and experience.
“We’re teaching these kids about character,” Aaron says. “I like to call it the fifth quarter. How are you going to act when the game is over and you’re off the field? How are you going to realize your aspirations, deal with setbacks and treat people? We also stress the old saying, ‘You’re a student before you’re an athlete.’”
Always a student
While Aaron’s instructing kids on safe, heads-up tackling and inspiring good sportsmanship, he’s also learning from them.
“These kids have taught me to have more patience and be a better communicator,” Aaron says. “When you work with the senior population, communication is key. They want to be heard, they want honesty, and they’re going to tell you what’s on their mind. The same holds true for kids, who can be brutally honest.”
Aaron wants more kids to attend a Kids & Pros camp and share that honesty. “Come one, come all,” he says. “We’re going to make a path for you.”
Boosting Future Business Owners
Sherri Zink, senior vice president and chief data and engagement officer, sees a direct correlation between her work with Junior Achievement of Chattanooga and BlueCross.
“At BlueCross we create a personal experience with a member based on what’s happening with his or her life journey,” Sherri says. “That’s how Junior Achievement works, too. Volunteers create individual experiences for students to show them they can be anything they want to be while emphasizing how what they learn in school supports that journey.”
Junior Achievement is a nationwide program that seeks to instill the entrepreneurial spirit and the value of education in students grades K-12. The Chattanooga arm opened its doors in 1960 and currently serves Hamilton, Catoosa, Marion and Walker counties. During the 2016-2017 school year, Junior Achievement of Chattanooga reached nearly 11,000 students in 543 classrooms thanks to the efforts of nearly 500 volunteers.
BlueCross has supported the organization as part of its Community Trust for a number of years. Three years ago, Sherri joined its board after a colleague’s recommendation evolved into a full-fledged champion role.
“Their efforts to empower students were immediately appealing to me,” Sherri recalls. “At BlueCross, we do things all day long to help people, but when you’re in the community and seeing these young faces light up when their creativity is encouraged and acknowledged, you see your real goal in life.”
A full day’s work
In addition to her board member status and year-round fundraising efforts, Sherri has taught “JA in a Day” classes to fourth graders at East Lake Elementary and first graders at Orchard Knob Elementary.
During “JA in a Day,” instructors spend several hours in a classroom and walk the kids through building a business, from concept to business practices to budget, aiming for as much one-on-one time as possible.
“You can’t help but get caught up in their excitement,” Sherri says. “I am so thankful that I can play even a small role in that.”