Paying it forward, one act at a time

Sharp applies simple philosophy to life, role as Knoxville’s neighborhood coordinator

Friday, October 26, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 43
By Nancy Henderson

Characteristically dodging undue attention and praise, Debbie Sharp is quick to point out that the idea wasn’t hers.

But when a fellow member of the South Woodlawn Neighborhood Association suggested in 2011 they apply to the National Wildlife Federation for certification of their community as a wildlife habitat, Sharp was all in. With a background in horticulture and forestry, and a career spent working with others to solve problems, the project was a natural fit. Plus, it was her own neighborhood.

When the woman behind the idea moved away, Sharp took over.

“We loved the idea of doing something positive in our neighborhood,” says Sharp, 49, who became neighborhood coordinator for the city of Knoxville in June. “A lot of times, neighborhoods organize around a negative issue – a drug house or speeding – but the thing that I loved most about this was that it was organizing around something fun and positive. We thought it would be cool to be the first [to earn the certification] in Tennessee, to kind of brand our neighborhood. And it worked.”

The city of Knoxville as a whole is now seeking the same community wildlife habitat certification.

In 2014, the year after her neighborhood received its wildlife designation, she became the city’s assistant neighborhood coordinator. When her boss, David Massey, retired this summer, she took his place. She is known for working long hours, attending neighborhood meetings and supporting residents in goals ranging from beautification and community-building to safety and emergency preparedness.

This is just one volunteer project that, for Sharp, has morphed into a paying job.

A “military brat” born in Turkey, Sharp grew up all over the world. The family moved back to their hometown of Knoxville after her father retired.

She loved the outdoors “in any form or fashion” and, from an early age, felt compelled to defend “the underdog and the vulnerable. If someone was being picked on, I would care about their feelings and want to find out if they’re okay. I always wanted to help people.”

Her parents, she says, taught her the value of courage, fairness and doing the right thing. It wasn’t until her grandfather died when Sharp was 10 that she felt his influence, too.

“He did a lot to help folks, and he was an organic gardener,” she says. “I tended to follow in his footsteps but had no idea I was doing that until I heard stories after he passed away.”

After earning a degree in ornamental horticulture and landscape design and a master’s in forest recreation, both from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Sharp knew she wanted to raise awareness about the importance of open spaces but wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of a profession. She joined the Peace Corps, where she worked to protect the habitat of the Andean condor, held environmental education camps for youth and taught villagers in Ecuador to grow their own trees.

The experience forced her to grow up, she recalls. “I love to travel and learn about new cultures, and I was ready for an adventure,” she says. “But as I learned, Peace Corps was different than what I expected, but in such a good way. And it did change the course of what I did, eventually. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”

It was the first time the 20-something Sharp had been away from home for an extended period, and she was the only American at the site. Her Spanish was adequate but not good enough for deep conversation. She missed her favorite music, her telephone, and the ability to shop at a store where the clerk spoke English.

About a year after she joined the Peace Corps, she was walking through one of the public squares in Ecuador one day when she ran into an acquaintance who noticed the loneliness in her eyes and gave her a hug. The two became friends, and the woman’s family welcomed Sharp into their Ecuadoran home.

Debbie Sharp at Sam Duff Memorial Park, located in her South Woodlawn neighborhood in South Knoxville.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“The kindness of people, and really feeling that deep down, having someone help you when you’re struggling – it just meant a lot to me,” Sharp says.

Determined to pay it forward, she made a conscious decision to give back in her own community when her stint with the Peace Corps ended in 1996. After volunteering at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center (now Safe Haven) for six months, she was hired as education outreach coordinator, teaching elementary school children in Knox County how to identify and prevent bullying, harassment and assault.

“I was always very impressed with the teachers that would let us come in, because back then it was pretty new and I guess in some ways it could’ve been controversial,” Sharp adds. “So, it was brave for the teachers to invite us.”

Even then, Sharp’s sense of compassion was obvious, says Terrin Kanoa, a property manager and former social worker who met Sharp during her time at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center and, years later, co-led monthly hikes with her in South Knoxville’s urban wilderness.

“Debbie is the most authentic person I know,” Kanoa says. “What you see is what you get with Debbie. She is honest and hardworking and fair. She is thoughtful and quiet. She is very honest and would help anyone in need.”

Almost three years after Sharp began working at the Crisis Center, a USDA grant became available to help disadvantaged women boost their income at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainability. As program director, she helped the ladies come up with ways to create saleable products, including salsas, jams and sauces, from the vegetables they grew in their organic gardens.

But the funding was short-term. So, when Sharp learned of a job opening at Columbus House, a group home run by Catholic Charities of East Tennessee for boys who are in state custody because of abuse, neglect or other factors, she applied. Once again, she had already volunteered there, cooking and hanging out with the kids.

Before long, Sharp began to consider becoming a foster parent. “The staff really cared for the kids. It was a good environment, but at the same time, I remember thinking, ‘Kids learn by example. The kids don’t ever see us brushing our teeth. We don’t get to sit down and watch a movie together at night.’ So, it really challenged me.”

To avoid a conflict of interest, Sharp did her foster parenthood training through a different company, then adopted two girls. The following year, she became the foster care coordinator at Catholic Charities. Her personal experience, she explains, gave her a deeper understanding of what the new parents needed to know.

When her employer shuttered the program, Sharp joined the staff at Community Connections, where she worked as an independent support coordinator, advocating for clients with developmental disabilities, before shouldering more responsibility as manager. “I loved the population and learning to find what someone is good at and encourage that,” she says. “To see them blossom is an amazing thing.”

In her down time, Sharp continued to volunteer with the League of Women Voters and other nonprofit groups, including the South Woodlawn Neighborhood Association and the City’s Neighborhood Advisory Council.

When the assistant neighborhood coordinator position became available with the city, Sharp says, “It was exactly everything I’d been doing in my personal life. I had the strengths of the social services side, and I’d been involved in committee work. My Peace Corps experience helped in working with lots of different people and different cultures. There were just so many pieces of my past that fit.”

Since her promotion this summer, she has been evaluating the department’s programs with an eye toward scaling back what isn’t working and beefing up what is. She considers herself a “nurturing but firm” leader, a good listener and problem-solver, and above all, a team builder who strives to build a consensus. Shy and introverted by nature, Sharp has had to learn how to be more outgoing and comfortable with the public. “Sometimes I can be an awkward person,” she says. “But it’s all genuine. I mean, it’s coming from a positive place.”

Not surprisingly, Sharp is an avid flower and vegetable gardener. She also loves hiking, cooking, traveling and reading. More unexpectedly, perhaps, is the fact that she plays drums and holds a fourth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, although she admits her practice has slowed.

“Lately,” she says, “my body doesn’t cooperate with me to continue doing many of the moves, nor do I have the time.”

Her job with the city has turned out to be a great match, she says. “What I’ve really enjoyed is helping the groups of people find their strengths and find solutions to make things better in their neighborhoods. It’s really nice to see neighborhoods finding some hope and helping [residents] get their voice out there about what they want.”