Julie Keel, Associate Executive Director of Mountain T.O.P., is excited about the upcoming Community Conversations to held during February and March in communities across the area. She recently spoke with us about these events and how she came to the mountain, making her home in Tracy City.
Julie was born in Monterey, California to Mary Margaret and Bob Willems.
“My father, Bob, is a retired naval officer, so we spent some time traveling early on. My younger brother, Todd, was born 23 months after me when we were living in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. My mother, Mary Margaret, stayed home with us growing up,” says Julie. “She passed away from cancer in 2013.”
Julie says when she was five, her family moved from Massachusetts to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“I say that I grew up in Long Beach, Mississippi. I attended elementary school, high school, and college in Mississippi. I graduated from Mississippi State University in 1999 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering. I also attended Asbury Seminary.
“I loved the place where I grew up. I never knew we were one of the poorest states in the country. Long Beach is on the coast. I spent my summers sailing on the gulf and Easter Sunrise Services on the beach.
“My main extracurricular activity in high school was singing in the choir. We were award winning across the southeast and traveled internationally. In high school, I was voted ‘Most Dignified Senior.’
“Right out of college, I worked for five years at an architecture and engineering firm in Atlanta. I left there and went to seminary. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and I felt called back to Mississippi to help.”
Julie came to the mountain to work for Mountain T.O.P.
“Mountain T.O.P. brought me here in 2007. I was living in Mississippi at the time, working for UMCOR in their Katrina relief efforts. My parents, (who had moved to Tracy City from the Gulf Coast in 2002), urged me to talk to Ed Simmons, the Executive Director, about the opening at Mountain T.O.P. Two weeks later, I moved.
“My duties at Mountain T.O.P. require me to split my time between supervising our program staff and community development work. Our programs include anything from recruiting participants to planning worship services. Our community development work focuses on listening and linking resources.”
When asked how she decided on this career, Julie says she was called.
“I am a Christian and view ‘work’ as a calling. I’ve always articulated my calling by saying that, ‘I’m called to help people.’ Through my time in seminary, it became clear to me that I wanted to work in a nonprofit that helped people. Because of my previous relationship with Mountain T.O.P., this was an easy transition; however, working for a nonprofit that strives to make positive changes in peoples’ lives is hard work.
“One of the things I love about my job is seeking innovative ways to carry out Mountain T.O.P.’s mission through collaborating with other people in the areas we serve.”
Currently, Julie is working with other agencies in the county to facilitate Community Conversations.
“The idea for community conversations is not new. It is actually something we have been doing already, both formally and informally.
“There were conversations through Vision Grundy and Facebook groups. There were a lot of conversations around election time. I can remember at one such event, someone turned to me and said, ‘Who is going to keep the conversation going?’ My thought was that Mountain T.O.P. could fulfill this role.
“The upcoming community conversations will be held in several locations across the area for residents of specific towns. We will spend a few minutes at the beginning of the time framing the conversation – explaining why this is important. Then we will split into tables of six to eight people. There will be a trained facilitator and note taker at each table. We will be asking the same six questions at each event so that we can compare information for common themes.
“We aren’t solving problems or instituting new programs. We are simply talking – listening and linking resources. On a large scale, I believe that from our conversations we will gain common themes that can be used to inform our local leaders, social service agencies, and nonprofits. These themes can also be a source of advocacy, a way to inform and influence on a state or federal level. On a small – but very important – scale, I believe people sitting around the table having these talks will become better connected and see how we can continue to help and support one another.
“Mountain T.O.P.’s role is to host these conversations in conjunction with our elected officials and other organizations. The topic of this first conversation, health, was chosen because, first of all, it is a topic important to everyone. Also, we have a very active Health Council and Health Network who need information to guide the kinds of programs they seek out. The information will be collected and shared anonymously. My hope is that we will continue with conversations on a variety of topics that are important to all of us.”
Julie hopes that community members will see the importance of participating in the upcoming conversations.
“Every one has a voice and everyone’s voice is important. No matter your situation as it relates to the topic of conversation, you are a needed voice at the table. Our voice is one of our biggest assets. From our experience, regular conversations like these have sparked some of the most successful local initiatives in our area like the South Cumberland Community Fund.”
Julie likes to look at things from a positive standpoint as you can see from her response when asked what she thought Grundy County lacked.
“You know, I don’t like to start the conversation from our deficits, so let me spin this question the way I like it! One of our biggest deficits in Grundy County is not recognizing the wealth of assets we possess. Yes, we have needs, and we can start picking them off one by one. But, if we would continue to talk to one another and collaborate, we will make sure that we are not working in silos, duplicating efforts and using resources inefficiently.
“So many community initiatives are tied to one another, and we need to work together to make sure we are utilizing all of our assets. This will also give us integrity and a clearer vision when we need to go after some of the things we are lacking. I’ve heard people say in response to community development, ‘We don’t want to turn into a Gatlinburg.’ Great, then we need to find out what we do want to turn into and be bold in our vision of that.
“For example, Mountain T.O.P. is linking with the health related groups to do the first round of conversations. Mountain T.O.P. does not do any programming specific to health. However, what good is it for us to help someone repair their house when they cannot stay well enough to go to work? Our strategies for support need to be collaborative and home-grown.”
She also sees Grundy County doing things right.
“I think we have the right people in the right places at the right time. It sort of feels like Esther, ‘For such a time is this…’ I’ve lived here for eight and one-half years, and I’ve never sensed this environment of collaboration like we have now. I think Grundy County has moved into a time of real social change and growth in the right direction. I’m excited that I can be a part of it.”
Julie is married to Jerrett Lee Keel and likes to travel in her free time.
“I love to visit other countries and get a real taste of their culture. One of my favorite places that I’ve visited is Anshan, China, where I’ve gone several times to work at an English training school and undocumented church.”
Everyone is invited to participate in the Community Conversations. Dates include: Palmer/Gruetli – February 5 at the Palmer Community Center; Tracy City – February 12 at the Dutch Maid Bakery; Monteagle/Sewanee – February 19 at the Smokehouse; Altamont/Beersheba – February 26 at 3 Crosses at Calvary Church; Coalmont – March 5 at Coalmont Community Center; and Pelham – March 12 at Pelham United Methodist Church. Each event will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and a free dinner will be provided.