The West Tennessee Community Champion Award recognizes individuals or groups who volunteer and give back to their communities without asking for recognition. The award aims to highlight the work of those who serve behind the scenes and inspire others to give back.
Volunteers and community activists are vital for a community to thrive and West Tennessee is full of individuals who care for those around them and want to see their neighborhoods become better places to live. Part of Leaders' mission is to be community minded, so we have partnered with WBBJ to recognize these individuals who are giving back and often go unnoticed.
This article highlights the 12 individuals who were awarded during the 2023 year.
January: Abbie Hinton
Abbie Hinton has a passion for giving back to her community. She is the Executive Director of the Lambuth Area Neighborhood Association, and has been a part of the neighborhood for three decades. It was members of LANA who played a significant role in keeping Lambuth University from closing before it became the University of Memphis — Lambuth campus.
“It is very important for people to be involved and to support their neighborhood,” said Hinton. “Volunteer when you can, when you can’t you can call on your neighbors. But it makes a community, it makes a home.”
February: Allyson Horner
Allyson Horner is the General Manager at Gibson County Utility District and she’s worked for the utility district for 23 years and has been manager for almost three years. In it’s 70 years of existence, Horner is the first woman to hold that position. Horner was also instrumental in the launch of a utility bill assistance payment program that’s now been around for 20 years.
“We are a government agency. We can’t make donations, we can’t just forgive your bill, of course. But what can we do that can be community-minded that will have people think about how can I help my neighbor,” Horner said.
March: Ria Patel
Ria Patel is a student who isn’t letting her age stop her from making a difference and helping other kids along the way. While many high school seniors are busy getting ready for prom, graduation, and the start of college, Ria Patel is using her free time to give back by partnering with the Star Center to help local kids. She created Ria’s Heart, which is a behavioral therapy art program for children who are on the autistic spectrum.
“I think working with the kids was definitely the best part of this whole experience. Just watching them coming in the first time and being shy and being hesitant to speak, and then over the course of the classes, watching them just transform and really see their personalities shine. I think that was amazing, and it’s what made everything so much more like fun. And seeing them laugh and joke and just grow from these classes, it made it so much more rewarding,” she said.
April: Dr. Gina Dieudonne
Dr. Gina Dieudonne is a pediatrician at Rainbow Pediatric in Humboldt, but when she is not serving kids in the doctor’s office, she is helping them work on their serve on the court. Rainbow Moves is a non-profit program that Dieudonne started in August of 2018. Dieudonne then decided to offer tennis lessons for free, meeting with the kids every Saturday. But it’s not just about getting active on the court. Dieudonne says they are a National Junior Tennis and Learning Center, which is part of the U.S. Tennis Association.
“Look around and see where there is a need. And whatever it is that either frustrates you, upsets you, that’s your calling right there. And so rather than just shrugging your shoulders and saying there’s nothing, if there’s a void, fill it. Fill it with something and do what you can with what you have,” Dieudonne said.
May: Billy and Jennifer Penick
June: Bob Arrington and Janet Silver
Friends of Heart started in 2017 after community members noticed a need for local heart and vascular care initiatives. Bob Arrington and Janet Silver are co-chairs of the organization. Friends of Heart has several initiatives such as community outreach, staff education, clinical research, and a first-of-its kind program in the nation called 4-Minute City. Arrington and Silver say heart health hits close to home for both of them.
“We’ve both had heart incidents. I had a heart attack back in 2007,” Arrington said.
“I went into cardiac arrest. Luckily, I was at the hospital when I went into cardiac arrest, so an AED saved my life,” Silver said.
“So us having heart issues helped us to develop and be a part of Friends of Heart. And most of the people involved are either, obviously, know somebody, family member, or them personally. So it’s a mission,” Arrington said.
July: Ed Wilson
Ed Wilson has been serving others his whole life and started with his time in the military. In addition to serving his country, Wilson was also a state trooper and the deputy sheriff of Madison County. And he has now been a driving instructor for more than a decade, helping to keep travelers safe while behind the wheel. Wilson also volunteers at the Kirkland Cancer Center, advocating for patients and helping the center in any way he can.
“I’ll never know whether I saved someone’s life or not. Or whether or not they listened to Ed Wilson say, ‘Wait that one more second before you move that car forward.’ It may save a life. I don’t know what’s going on after they leave my class,” Wilson said.
August: Jill Taylor
Jill Taylor is a Jackson resident who one day got motivated to help keep her city looking beautiful. Taylor has helped people get excited about volunteering and keeping the city clean and trash-free. Taylor says it starts with caring about the place you live. During her time of helping the city in the fight against blight and littering, she has truly seen the impact that can happen when the community bands together. And the first step to getting started is a simple one.
“Grab a bag and go out and pick up your front yard and pick up your neighbor’s yard if they’re not able to do that. Get a little crew together. There are so many people that have supper clubs, playgroups, or retirement communities with a lot of purpose and energy to share. That’s all it takes. It doesn’t cost anything to go out and help clean up our neighborhoods that may need some extra effort,” Taylor said.
September: Jennifer Milam
Isaiah 117 House is a home for foster children who are waiting for foster placement. Jennifer Milam is the Program Coordinator for Gibson, Crockett, and Dyer counties. Milam said it was her time in the classroom that opened her eyes to the various needs children are facing. Milam said they’ve been working for approval for more than a year. DCS and Isaiah House decided to combine Gibson, Crockett, and Dyer counties due to the number of children in need. It will be the first in the West Tennessee area.
“This mission is really big on my heart. I’ve been a school teacher for 22 years. So I saw the need and the neglect of children in this school system and that led to me fostering. My husband and I have fostered for six years and once your eyes are open to the foster world, you just see the need,” Milam said.
October: Lillian Cashion
On top of schoolwork and spending time with family, 12-year old Lillian Cashion spends much of her free time giving back to those in need. It’s something she has been passionate about since she was only eight-years-old.
“About four years ago when I saw a homeless person on the side of the road and it just like hurt me that they didn’t have much. So I decided that I was going to start doing stuff for people who don’t have much, and that’s what I was going to do,” said Cashion.
That’s when Cashion got the idea to create hygiene bags for the homeless community, filled with products like toothbrushes and soap. But also something special. She includes a note to encourage them inside the bag. Cashion’s heart of giving back didn’t stop there. She helps to fill Give Back Jack boxes in the area. The boxes are stocked with canned goods and snacks for people who may be hungry.
November: Jessica Johnson
Jessica Johnson founded Brenda’s House of Hope, a recovery house for women. Located in Savannah, the program is designed to encourage women afflicted with substance abuse issues. Opening in 2022, Brenda’s House helps women further their recovery and lower the risk of relapse. Brenda’s House of Hope is in honor of someone very close to Johnson, as she lost her mother, Brenda, to addiction. Johnson says it’s special to know that through the legacy of her mother, she has been able to help more than nine women achieve more than a year of sobriety.
“Anyone struggling with addiction has the same hope, dreams, and desires as anyone else. They simply lost their way. So whenever they come here, these women have made a personal decision to get their life back on track. And to me, the more loved and supported they feel, the more successful that they will be,” Johnson said.
December: Johnny Johnson
Johnny Johnson is a man who knows all about what it means to work and be of service to others. After serving more than 20 years in the military and then 18 years at the Post Office, Johnson now dedicates his time to volunteering. Johnson spends anywhere from 40 to 50 hours a week volunteering for The Salvation Army. Johnson says it’s programs like Angel Tree where he can see the amazing work being done.
“This year we got over 400 families and over 1,320 people that we’re providing gifts for Christmas. And it’s a long, tiresome job, but it’s very beneficial when you see the parents come up here to get the presents for their kids and thank us for it. It really makes a difference to me,” Johnson said.
Nominate a Community Champion for 2024
It is people like these 12 recipients who make our community better and healthier. If you know of someone who is a West Tennessee Community Champion, nominate them online.