Kula Dharma Series: Wildfires in Tennessee

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What makes you feel connected?

How do your talents and passions fit into the world?

Dharma is a Sanskrit word that defies simple translation into our modern minds. I have come to understand it as taking actions that fulfill my passions and give me a deep sense of contributing my unique talents to the universe. As I move through the constantly shifting flow of existence there are some things about my Self that stay constant, making me who I am. When I put these innate characteristics into action I am living my Dharma. That’s the way I felt last week.

chilly rain fell on the patches of charred black forest floor along route 321 going into Gatlinburg, TN. The spindly bare branches and deep evergreens were muted by low hanging clouds, evoking the grief of hundreds of families struggling with the desolation wreaked by the recent wildfires.

Just a few weeks earlier, freak winds sent flaming embers flying through the tinderbox of Smoky Mountain National Park, achingly close to the end of a 5 month drought. Hundreds of firefighters struggled heroically to contain the blaze. They were the first in a long line of volunteers who would dedicate their time, resources, and services to helping their neighbors in need. They were able to save the majority of the town, yet could not save it all. The “perfect storm” conditions fuelled the flames and fourteen lives were lost, as well as hundreds of homes and businesses.

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It was almost two weeks later when my wife and I made our way to the FEMA volunteer hub. A friend mentioned they were seeking translators to assist spanish-speaking victims of the blaze, and we signed up right away. We were eager to add our small grain of sand to the relief effort.  The ongoing activities are massive and multifaceted. Volunteers sort through mountains of donations and direct affected people through mazes of handouts and support systems.

One of the organizations that has been most directly assisting the affected families has been  the Dollywood Foundation. I was particularly impressed by the way they are able to make sure the support goes to those who truly need it. Right after I’d been oriented, I heard a young woman talking on the phone in Spanish - my first assignment. She was a single mother from Honduras and as we chatted she shared that her four year visa ran out recently. She looked nervous as she shared this with me, and quickly moved to explain. Because her youngest child is a US citizen her visa extension process has been complicated, leaving her exposed to all manner of dangers, particularly in the current political climate of Tennessee.

To further complicate the situation, she was sharing a small apartment with another family, subletting from the official renter. On the fateful day of November 28th, she was driving back from a doctor’s appointment with her children when the roads into Gatlinburg were closed. After the ash settled her home and all of her documents and possessions had gone up in smoke. She had no mail, no passport, and no proof of residence. When I appealed to the foundation’s director of operations, he calmly but firmly directed us to the nearby corporate offices of her employer, and gave us the name of a woman who would be able to write a letter for her confirming her address. This simple but knowledgeable support ultimately led to her receiving the first of six monthly checks for $1000.

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Afterward, as she picked through toy donations for her children we chatted about how disconnected she feels here: “It’s like being a slave. Work is everything. But now I have my kids. I stay for them. For their futures. There’s no support like this in my country.” In just a few words she summed up the immigrant experience here in the United States. One that’s bound to get more difficult in the coming years. Yet, Dolly Parton and her foundation figured out a way to get timely help to those in need, regardless of where they were born. She’s been able to leverage her celebrity to direct support for her community, and in this way live her Dharma.

Though it turned out there were more volunteers than spanish speakers that day, my wife and I were glad to connect to others in our community who share a similar sense of how to live out their Dharma in the world. Events may toss us from side to side on our journey, yet the clearer we are about who we are and how we contribute to the universe, the farther we’ll be able to reach.

Because we at Kula Collective believe that exploring and expressing this dharma is our deepest role in this life, we’ve decided to transform our Karma program into a Dharma program. Take a look at our Dharma Grants offering. By submitting your Dharma Project, you will be able to earn up to 50% off any Yoga Teacher Training or Transformational Retreat. Most importantly, we hope it will guide you as you put together a project that will express your Dharma in your own unique way!

Namaste,
Zachary Towne-Smith


 zach towne-smith, bio

Zachary Towne-Smith is a passionate connector. His innate creativity, flexible perspective, and quick smile make him a natural leader, inspiring participation and thoughtful consensus in the wide array of groups he works with.  He has dedicated his life to the study and development of intercultural relations and the facilitation of innovative solutions for sustainable well-being.  

To learn more about Zachary and see his upcoming yoga teacher trainings and retreats, click here.