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Mt. Juliet Elementary sends Christmas cheer abroad

Christmas time is exciting for children who eagerly anticipate Santa’s arrival, but some students at Mt. Juliet Elementary are finding out, there is more than one way to get into the holiday spirit.

On Friday, the kindergarten wing of MJE resembled a speedy assembly line as the students made their way from station to station, stuffing stockings to be sent to American troops serving overseas.

Each station was manned by a member of Music City Blue Star Moms, who had different items for the stockings. The items included everything from needed essentials like toothpaste and toiletries to something succulent for the soldiers’ sweet cravings.

The stocking goodies were largely donated by students from all the other grades at MJE with the task of getting them stuffed going to the kindergarteners.

For one student, the act really hit close to home. Lily LaBerge is the daughter of two Wilson County veterans, Ethan and Arin LaBerge. Her father was injured in a bombing during a deployment to Afghanistan.

In May of 2012, Ethan LaBerge arrived at Fort Campbell and was placed in the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. When his platoon was leaving a meeting with Afghan officials, a civilian detonated a bomb nearly 10 feet from the soldiers. Mr. LaBerge survived the attack but was left in critical condition from head-to-toe shrapnel wounds, broken bones and a concussion.

LaBerge was awarded a Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two campaign stars, and he medically retired from the Army in 2016.

Lily LaBerge was visibly shaking when asked about filling up the stockings. She was excited to be able to send stockings to soldiers “like her dad,” so they “could have Christmas too.”

That all of her classmates and fellow kindergartners were also enthusiastic about sharing a stocking this Christmas said it made her “proud that they care too.”

Another kindergartener, Ryan Stott, commented about how the whole process felt like a way of giving back to the soldiers who give so much of themselves to a larger mission.

“I like it because they are keeping us safe,” said Stott, who showed no signs of slowing down. “We’re going to keep doing it til they’re all full.”

After seeing what all was going in the stocking, Stott mentioned that he wanted to be a soldier one day, so he could get a stocking “with all this great stuff.”

One student, Sadie Martin, said that she knows the soldiers will like the stockings, because of all the “goodies inside,” like the gummy bears, which are Martin’s favorite.

Stott and Martin weren’t the only students energized by the day’s big event. As the students poured through the process and loaded the stockings into boxes with the help of Blue Star dad Phillip Horst.

A Blue Star is the designation for a family member of someone currently serving in active duty.

Horst said that the sight of so many children who appeared so excited to be participating in an event centered around giving really struck a chord with him.

“It’s just great,” Horst said. “These students won’t know who gets their stockings, but they all seem happy to be spreading Christmas cheer.”

While Horst represented the end of the line for the little stocking stuffers, Music City Blue Star Moms Membership Chair and Chaplain Betsy White represented the starting point. She was loading each stocking with notes written by the students.

Some of these notes were shorter than others, but each expressed a special sentiment.

One note read ...

Dear Soldier,

Thank you for your service and for fighting for peace. I really appreciate you for fighting for our country.


Celine Yousif.

Another note was a bit more brief but still thoughful.

It reads ...

“Thank you soldiers. I love you. From Paisley.”

White said that these gestures can make a huge difference for soldiers stationed abroad during the holidays.

“It shows those people we are thinking about them,” said White. “But more importantly, it reminds them of home.”

White’s son, William White, is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. She said that the stockings and cards that he received while abroad were almost like reinforcements showing up.

In total, the students filled approximately 1,000 stockings, which will be delivered to soldiers stationed abroad during the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. Where they will ultimately end up could be anyone’s guess, but one sure thing is that whoever gets one will know people back home are thinking about them.

PHOEBES … not widows

When women are released from the Wilson County Jail, they sometimes have nowhere to go and only the clothes on their backs.

Their situation isn’t something that goes unnoticed

“We have three ladies from three different churches in Lebanon who go to the jail once a week for prison ministry,” Lebanon’s Elaine Pearson said. “They came to us with this idea and gave us the list of items that would be helpful to an inmate when she is released from jail. I took that list, typed it up and distributed it to our PHOEBEs.”

Pearson coordinates the ministry projects for the Lebanon-based group PHOEBE Connections.

November’s project — pack a purse — was carried out last week.

“It was personal-care items,” Pearson said. “We also included stamped envelopes with paper and pens, a gift card from Burger King, because it’s the only thing close to the jail and open at 6 a.m. in the morning. There’s Bibles in it. There’s a list of resources in Wilson County that Compassionate Hands has provided. There’s some information about three different churches who provide assistance if they need resources or a ride to church. There’s snacks, granola and packs of crackers.

“When a woman walks out with nothing, she can have something to help her out.”

That’s nothing new for PHOEBE Connections though. Each month, the women’s group gathers for a new ministry project.

“These ladies are all about serving,” PHOEBE Connections President Ronda Martin said. “They’re very active in the local community. They’re very active in the church. They’re an empowered group.”

However, one word is off limits as far as the ladies are concerned.

“We don’t like the word widow,” Pearson said.

There’s a reason why they don’t care to be referred to as widows.

“We didn’t want to use the word widow,” Martin said. “Let’s face it … it’s a downer. When you think about a widows group, people think, ‘Oh, how pitiful.’ We wanted something to where people would feel empowered. There’s a need to find purpose in life again. We wanted widows to be able to do that again. Serving is a part of healing. When you can serve others, it gives purpose. It’s finding that support they need, finding that encouragement they need, but it’s serving too.”

The name, PHOEBE Connections, came about during the group’s planning process.

“Ronda first felt like the Lord was leading her to do a ministry,” PHOEBE Connections Treasurer Carol Pharris said. “She was a young widow with a young son. She knew Elaine. Elaine’s husband had passed away. They knew each other as widows. Elaine knew me and that my husband had passed away. They called me and said Carol can you help us with this. I said, I have a friend (Glynda Green) who is also a widow. The four of us began meeting, praying and thinking. How could we meet? How could we serve?

“We met with a couple of pastors and talked with them. We wanted to know what our purposes were. The four of us would sit and talk and think about the purposes of our organization. The first letter of (each of) our purposes spelled out PHOEBE. She looked up Romans 16:1 and 2. It’s the only place in the Bible that PHOEBE was mentioned. Paul was complimenting her because she had been beneficial to him in his work. We thought that fits beautifully with our purposes. That was just too much of a God thing. We could not avoid that. It was a beautiful thought.”

Martin is the youngest of the group. She was 41 when her husband, Eddie Martin, died.

“I truly believe it was just divine providence,” Martin said. “I lost my husband in 2005 to a motorcycle accident. We had a 4-year-old son at the time. Then, a couple of years later, I started seminary. I got a masters in thelogicial studies online. I began praying asking, God, ‘Where would you have me serve?’

“I was at Immanuel (Baptist Church in Lebanon) at the time, and we had a missions night. I prayed, ‘Lord, where would you best have me serve?’ Nothing really clicked. That night, the pastor got up and told a story about visiting with a widow. She said, ‘When does it stop hurting?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been through that. I looked at my watch and thought that He (God) usually doesn’t ask that quickly. I went up to him (the pastor) after the service and talked with him, and he told me, ‘You need to come talk to me.’ I took Elaine Pearson with me, and we talked about what we could do to help widows.”

Fruitful … in a different sense

Martin was interesting in doing something that she felt would be more impactful than some of the things that she experienced after her husband died.

“I remember after my husband died, a church brought me a fruit basket, and I found that so offensive,” Martin said. “I thought, ‘I don’t need a fruit basket. I need friends who will support me. I need someone to be involved in my life. I need friends to help with my son.

“When you become a widow, your social status changes forever. People drop you like a hot potato, because you’re a widow now. Most of the women in the program have experienced that. I wasn’t a part of a couple now. I was by myself. It’s amazing how your social status changes. Widows need a support system.”

Martin isn’t the only one who has experienced those social challenges.

“It is super important to me,” Pearson said. “When I lost Mike (Pearson, her husband, in 2006), I lost my identify. I was a pastor’s wife. I was a director of missions’ wife. Suddenly, I was just me. You lose friends, because our friends were couples friends. For a while, they invite you, but you’re just a third wheel. Eventually, that stops. So, you’ve lost friends. You’ve lost your identity as to who you are. You begin to look at yourself in a totally different way, as far as what is your role now. I’ve been the pastor’s wife. I’ve been the director of missions’ wife. Now, I just sit in a pew.

“We as widows have different experiences in the way we lose our husband. I cannot identify with a lady whose husband is ill for a long time. Ronda and I both got the (sudden) phone call. You start with the shock of it all. We as widows share that and can support that. We can just be friends. It’s been such a blessing.”

Pharris is one of those who didn’t get “the call.”

“My husband (Don) had a stroke in 2004,” the 79-year-old Pharris said. “It was pretty bad. He was disabled some, and it got a little worse. It went for about five years. He had been a pastor. I was an owner and managing broker of Cumberland Real Estate. His stroke kind of slowed us down. I continued at the real estate office for a couple of years, but then, I retired.

“For five years, he needed care. During that time, my life got very small. It was centered around him and his care. My world got very small. Whenever he passed away, it was in 2009. When they asked me to get involved, my skills are in administration and organization. Also, it was important for me to build new relations. When they asked me, ‘Do you want to help us?’ It just fit it perfectly, because I myself was reaching out to build new relations. The Lord was just opening doors for me to have an impact and to build relationships with other people.”

Growing up

Pharris entered the picture after Martin and Pearson met with the pastor at Immanuel.

“Elaine looked at me and said, ‘What are you thinking,’ ” Martin said. “I said, ‘We need an administrator.’ Elaine said, ‘I know somebody who is an administrator.’ So, she called Carol.

“People think I am in charge. Really … I just do what Carol tells me. Carol brought a friend with her named Glynda Green. She’s a social butterfly and the life of the party. We just kind of began talking things out, and we realized that God was doing something here. We all realized that we had talents that we could contribute. Between the four of us, all of our husbands were active in church leadership. We thought God has brought together people in church leadership to create something.”

What is now known as PHOEBE Connections started with those four ladies.

“We would talk about what do we want this ministry to be,” Martin said. “I’d write it down, and I’d give it to them. They’d make edits.”

Pharris added, “The four of us started inviting some other widows to come and talk with us while we were figuring out what to do. We had eight coming. Then, there was 12. I’m sure we had 20 or 25 at our first (official) meeting.”

Now, in its 11th year, the group has grown to the point to where that there was approximately 40-50 active members prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the monthly meetings have approximately 30-40 attendees.

“It has been so encouraging from the relationships that have been formed,” Pharris said. “I know there’s widows who didn’t have a support system around them, who didn’t have family. They have come and gotten involved in our ministries and built relationships and friendships. That’s been a very valuable part. It’s them doing things that are benefiting somebody else. That’s always a good thing.”

However, there’s many more widows among the PHOEBE connection family than simply the individuals who attend the meetings.

“They’re very dear to me,” Pharris said. “I have developed some real good friendships from that. I am very active in a church. I have a lot of friends from my Sunday-school class. That and my PHOEBEs have developed into my closest friends. It’s one way I can build relationships. It also has helped me feel that other people value the relationships with me.

“It’s given me a way to serve the Lord through helping to build this organization. Part of my purpose is helping women to know their place in this life. Part of that is knowing who Jesus is and knowing what your purpose is in life. It’s helping people live out their life to have purpose and meaning. It has helped me to impact other people’s lives in serving other people.”

Faith … front and center

They are all quick to point out that the group places a heavy emphasis on Christian faith.

In fact, the P in PHOEBES stands for, “Point people toward Jesus Christ as their healer, comforter, provider and Savior.”

“We are a faith-based organization,” Pearson said. “We want to help widows begin to find a new identity, to begin to find a sense of purpose for their life and a way of serving and sharing with others.”

Martin added, “Everybody hurts in their own way at times. It’s all about a relationship with Christ. We point them to Christ . You either run to Christ at this time, or you run from Him. We want them to run to Him.”

Martin has written a devotional book, “God’s Word to a Widow’s Heart.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to see God work directly in me and through me,” Martin said. “Just the excitement of being able to hear from God and see Him pull it all together is amazing. Seeing that same message resonate in others, knowing that what God has put in me is in her, that’s so exciting. It’s a message that resonates.”

However, the group is not affiliated with any certain denomination.

“We have Baptists, Church of Christ, Methodist, non-denominational, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran,” Martin said. “We found that it doesn’t matter what denomination you are. All of them have widows.

“At first, we didn’t get the support from the church community that we hoped to get, but as the ministry began to grow, now, we have good support from the churches. We began meeting in churches so that people could get to know us.”

More fellowship than food

The 58-year-old Martin is the youngest PHOEBE.

“They’re a fun group of women,” Martin said. “People who come to speak to our organization, we’re not what they’re expecting.”

Martin is still among the workforce, while many of the other PHOEBEs are retired, affording them the opportunity to gather on a more regular basis.

Some of the members gather at Lebanon’s Jimmy Floyd Center each week to walk together, followed by lunch at an area Wendy’s location … which may be filled with more fellowship than food.

The PHOEBEs feel that the fellowship is invaluable.

“One of our PHOEBE ladies is our card lady,” Pearson said. “We have a list of all our birthdays. She sends a card on their birthday. One of our ladies is in charge of prayer needs. She gets our prayer lists and prayer requests on Monday or Tuesday of each week. We are supporting each other that way. Birthday cards are encouraging.

“If we want to go somewhere, my first inclination is to call a PHOEBE sister. If you want to go to a movie theater or a play or whatever, you don’t have to go by yourself anymore. You have a PHOEBE sister you can call.”

In addition the monthly meeting (which is often held on Saturdays), there is also a monthly luncheon, with the November location being Painturo’s.

However, the most rewarding endeavors may be the monthly ministry projects.

“That was an integral part of what we chose to do,” the 79-year-old Pharris said.

Those ministry projects have consisted of helping local churches with their food pantries, delivering cookies to first responders from Mt. Juliet to Watertown, supplying food for children who are forced to temporarily stay in the Department of Children’s Services office, helping animal shelters, and working with Uncle Pete’s Truck Stop with helping to distribute personal-care items to area veterans.

“One of our objectives has to do with ministry,” Pearson said. “Me as a widow, one of the best things to do is to get out of my shell and help others. The ladies flourish. They enjoy doing these ministry projects and sharing with others.

“We did not miss a month of ministry projects during the pandemic. It might be driving up in a church van. Since COVID, the ministry projects that we do have them on-site. The ladies then see where they’re benefiting and where they’re helping. I like bringing it to a site, because they can put eyes on where they’re helping.”

PHOEBE Connections’ biggest fundraiser takes place in September, which includes the PHOEBEs purchasing tables for a 250-person evening of fun at Immanuel Baptist Church. It includes dinner and music, a silent cake auction and a live cake auction presided over by realtor/auctioneer Jeff Hallums.

A cheesecake made by Judge Barry Tatum raised $2,750 in 2019, and another cheesecake brought in $2,500. A coconut cake resulted in a $1,200 donation as well.

“We see people donating to our ministry,” Martin said. “We see churches giving to our ministry … and we see people giving $2,700 for cheesecakes.”

The event raised approximately $39,000 this year, with those funds going toward scholarships given to the children of widows. According to Pharris, the group has been awarding those scholarships for six or seven years now.

There were 14 scholarships of $2,000 given in 2021.

“If their mother is a widow and they apply, we get them a scholarship,” Pharris said.

And that’s yet another part of the great fulfillment and joy that the women have in giving back … which goes against what many might expect being around a group of widows to be like.

“You don’t need a box of Kleenexes to come to PHOEBEs,” Pearson said.

Lebanon, Watertown, Green Hill reach round of 8

History continued to be made at Lebanon and Green Hill, while Watertown was repeating some second-round success last Friday night.

All three of Wilson County’s region champions made it to the state quarterfinals with home-field victories.

A season of shedding monkeys off its backs continued as Lebanon knocked off two more. The Blue Devils’ 30-17 win over Riverdale marked the program’s first win over the Warriors since 1993 and first trip to the round of eight since 1995. It was the team’s 11th win, the most ever in the program’s 103-year history.

Green Hill’s second-year program continued setting the bar high for future Hawk teams as Columbia lost for the second time this season on the Hill, this time by a 21-17 count, sending coach Josh Crouch’s team to the quarterfinals in its first year of playoff eligibility.

Watertown’s fourth consecutive region championship has been followed by a fourth consecutive trip to the quarterfinals following a 7-0 win over Marion County. And for a fourth time, it will be Trousdale County visiting Robinson Stadium in the round of eight after the Yellow Jackets traveled to Decatur and knocked off Meigs County, 16-8.

While Wilson County’s remaining public school teams enjoyed a victorious Friday night, private school Friendship Christian bowed out of the Division II-Class A playoffs with a second-round/quarterfinal loss at Donelson Christian Academy, 47-7.

Next Friday, while Watertown tries to travel a different playoff path against the Yellow Jackets, Lebanon and Green Hill will try to reach the semifinals for the first time. Top-ranked Oakland will visit Lebanon’s Clifton Tribble Field/Danny Watkins Stadium, while Page will take its shot at knocking the Hawks off the Hill.

Friendships forged through common goals

Having an inviting gathering place where socializing becomes the standard is a blessing in and of itself. When you’re a senior citizen who relocated to a new area, that place can take on an even greater meaning.

Nell Highers and Joan Carrow are two good friends who both volunteer at the Mt. Juliet Senior Activity Center in addition to attending several of the events and recreational opportunities. On Saturday, they were carefully constructing displays of the items up for grabs during the senior center’s Christmas shop yard sale.

Both Carrow and Highers are transplants to Wilson County, although Highers is quick to proclaim she is a “life-long Tennessean.” Carrow, on the other hand, lives with her husband and moved to Middle Tennessee from her home in Boston, New York, an area just outside of Buffalo.

While she was pleased with the move, she admitted that making friends in a new place at her age was a bit of a challenge. When she found the senior center, the new friends started lining up.

“The center gives us a reason to all get together,” said Carrow. “Making friends was just a matter of time.”

Carrow is grateful for those friendships, like the one she has with Highers, and she knows that without the center, she might not even know her.

Highers, who lives in an independent senior facility in Mt. Juliet (Carrick Glen), echoed Carrow’s thoughts on the center being a great place to meet people.

“We get to come here and socialize with people our own age,” Highers said. “It’s truly a blessing.”

The center is currently raising funds to try and relocate to a new building. The current building is more than 100 years old and regularly in need of repairs.

Mount Juliet Senior Activity Center Executive Director Valissa Saindon said that the yard sale is only one of many fundraising events the center hosts each year but pointed out that “every dollar counts toward reaching our goal.”

Given the yard sale’s Christmas theme, a lot of the items for sale were Christmas decorations, such as wreaths, lights and Dickens Village displays. The center’s programs and activities coordinator, Mona Tissue, said that the items for sale were all donated to the center at some point during the year.

Saindon explained that Tissue is known throughout the organization as the “yard sale queen,” for her ability to put together these important fundraisers during the year. According to Tissue, the whole process is a time-consuming undertaking, only possible with help from volunteers.

“We don’t turn away donations, so all of them have to be sorted and priced, which is where I come in,” said Tissue. “Getting them out of storage and setting them up is a team effort though.”

Tissue explained that it’s all worth it in the long run, because the yard sales don’t cost the center anything, making the day’s take pure profit.

Saturday’s haul proved to be a smashing success, as Tissue reported the largest single-day yard sale total the center had ever held, bringing in slightly less than $2,000. Tissue estimated that when the center’s members return for activities this week and could potentially shop from the items that were left, it might help them to cross that mark.

Lebanon offensive tackle Aiden Donald (77) lifts receiver Anthony Crowell into the air after taking Jaylen Abston's shovel pass 5 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, putting the Blue Devils in front 14-10 in the final minute of the first half.