Hands On Nashville's mission is to meet community needs through volunteerism. Our programs connect volunteers to opportunities supporting 200-plus nonprofits, schools, and other civic organizations; help these partners reimagine volunteer potential; and bring awareness to the challenges facing the people and places in our community.
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1991: Hands On Nashville Launches
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." —Margaret Mead
Hal Cato, founder of Hands On Nashville (HON), often refers to this quote when he reflects on the spirit that sparked HON’s launch in 1991. At the time, he served as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels during his lunch break. He had such a rewarding experience, that he started bringing friends along to deliver meals with him. Soon, these friends began developing volunteer opportunities with other nonprofits.
As this passion for service grew, Cato became aware of the work that a forward-thinking volunteer group in Atlanta was doing – this group would later form HandsOn Network. After visiting with the folks in Atlanta, Cato and his friends said, “Let’s do this in Nashville, too.” And the idea was born to create an organization that makes it easy for people to find meaningful volunteer opportunities in the Nashville area.
Hands On Nashville began as a true grassroots effort. In the first year of operation, there were no paid staff or budget, and Cato provided office space in his home. The group set a goal to recruit 250 volunteers, and they created fliers listing volunteer opportunities and left them in people’s mailboxes.
April 1998: A Tornado Outbreak
Tennessee saw a historic tornado outbreak in April 1998, with 13 tornadoes sweeping through Middle Tennessee and two of them touching down in Nashville. Nashville became the first major city in nearly 20 years to have an F2 or larger tornado make a direct impact on the downtown area. The tornado started in West Nashville and traveled over 28 miles as it blew through downtown and East Nashville. The Nashville tornadoes caused over one hundred injuries, one death, and over $100 million in estimated damages. This tornado outbreak had a large impact on the city, as Nashville installed 93 tornado sirens the next year when previously there were none.
According to an article from the Tennesseean dated April 24, 1998, the tornado outbreak was Hands On Nashville's first known response to a natural disaster. HON lead a group of teenage volunteers called People United Leading and Serving Everywhere (PULSE) in East Nashville, offering assistance to tornado survivors. To see the article, click here.
May 2010: The Historic Flood
On May 1 and 2, 2010, a devastating flood caused widespread destruction in Middle Tennessee. Hands On Nashville served as the central clearinghouse for disaster response volunteers.
The volunteer response was extraordinary. Between May 3 and December 31, 2010, more than 22,000 people donated 91,000 hours to flood recovery and restoration efforts in more than 1,200 volunteer projects through Hands On Nashville alone. To put 91,000 hours in perspective – that’s nearly 11 years of time. Another 125,000 volunteer referrals were made by HON to facilitate grassroots efforts led by individuals, as well as faith and community groups, in 2010. The city’s incredible spirit of compassion, service, and hope drew national attention, and that spirit continues on today.
In 2010, HON mobilized nearly 200,000 volunteers in all, and helped create a citywide culture of service. As a result, Nashville leapfrogged 19 positions – from 37 to 18 – in the Corporation for National & Community Service's “Volunteering in America” ranking of the 51 largest cities.
Spring 2020: The Tornado and a Pandemic
A deadly F3 tornado blew through the city just past midnight on March 3, destroying or badly damaging nearly 600 homes and businesses as it tore a straight-line path from the western edge of the county through numerous residential neighborhoods, continuing for more than 60 miles. Within a week of the tornado, more than 26,000 individuals expressed interest in volunteering for relief and recovery efforts via hon.org. Volunteers cleared tornado debris from yards and sidewalks, staffed donation collection and distribution sites, handed out food, canvassed tornado-damaged neighborhoods, tarped storm-damaged roofs, and provided aid and comfort to those reeling from the damage. The response was incredible — a surge of love and support our community won't soon forget.
Two weeks later, COVID-19 came to Middle Tennessee, and the city moved forward with a Safer at Home order. Large tornado cleanup projects halted, and volunteers pivoted to helping meet critical coronavirus-related needs in the community: Distributing food to hungry families whose children were no longer in school, supporting healthcare professionals at Community Assessment Centers, and making and distributing face masks in a time of critical shortages.
Today: Where Hands On Nashville Is Heading
Thirty years after its launch, HON continues to nurture the vision of its founders, and also has grown to offer so much more. Today, HON connects thousands of volunteers of all ages to more than 300 service projects each month — many of them aimed to provide creative solutions to some of our community's most pressing needs. Volunteers are essential to continuing this important work. Will you join us?