Aug 11 |

Mike Kitchens, chairman of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs in Tennessee, noted that “more than 100 hands” touch a service dog during its 1,500 to 1,800 hours of training.

In December 2022, nine volunteers stood shoulder to shoulder during Smoky Mountain’s “passing of the leash” ceremony for a yellow lab named Blair.
Each volunteer had played a role in the training of Blair, who was about to be officially presented to Master Sgt. Dax, who served in the Marines and then the Army, from which he retired in 1991.

Dax (Smoky Mountain doesn’t disclose his last name) deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and earned a Kuwait Liberation Medal and National Defense Medal with a Bronze Star.

Blair was his next award.

“You’ll notice as we pass the leash,” Kitchens said, Blair’s tail wagging, “these dogs never forget. This could be two years from now, they still would remember the folks that helped prepare them for this life of service.”

That service and those helping hands and paws strike at the heart of Upstream Rehabilitation’s Pillars with Purpose, which marks two significant milestones in 2023: its fifth anniversary and more than $1 million in grants to make lasting, positive change in Upstream communities and around the world.

The charitable arm of Birmingham, Ala.-based Upstream Rehabilitation, Pillars with Purpose is driven by Upstream associates, who comprise the committees that oversee its seven benevolent funds (also called pillars) and make up most of the nearly 1,200 unique donors to date.

Pillars with Purpose has made more than 500 grants in 28 states, including $21,500 for Blair’s training and another eight grants totaling $34,052 to support the pairing of other service dogs with veterans.

Sometimes needs arise with little or no warning. Such was the case in Bowling Green and Warren County, Ky., in December 2021.

Tornado clusters tore through homes and businesses – winds associated with one twister topping 150 mph – claiming 17 lives and leaving a trail of disaster in its wake.

Pillars with Purpose awarded $7,500 to the Playing for Mason Foundation, which in turn made $5,000 donations to Warren County Public Schools and Bowling Green Independent School District to provide tornado relief to children and families.

Stephen Huntsman, Upstream’s chief compliance officer, grew up near Bowling Green and connected Pillars with Purpose to Playing for Mason. He then spent weeks on the ground helping with tornado cleanup.

Meanwhile, Upstream associates in nearby Georgia wanted to help, too. As storm victims salvaged what personal belongings they could but without a permanent place to put them, boxes became scarce.

Pillars with Purpose supported the Georgia team with an $865 award to cover the cost of collecting boxes and supplies and delivering them to Northside Church of Christ in Bowling Green.

Most Pillars with Purpose awards are modest, averaging $1,900, demonstrating time and again how a little bit of help can do a lot of good.

Consider one of the original grants, made in 2018 through the fund’s faith-based pillar to a nonprofit in Winchester, Ky., Beacon of Hope Emergency Shelter.

Pillars with Purpose awarded $1,300, with which the shelter purchased two new stoves and an over-the-range microwave. Combined with a kitchen renovation, the purchases simplified the process of preparing 210 meals each day.

“We made do with what we had, and we were grateful for what we had,” said Rachel Grigsby, treasurer for the all-volunteer shelter, “but this is going to be a game-changer.”