By Elizabeth A. Davis ’86
Before the faculty and the fifth grade tipped off their basketball game in January, Chattanooga Area Food Bank President and CEO Gina Crumbliss addressed the crowd and thanked all the students and their families for donating more than 2,000 canned goods. It was a special day for the contribution to the food bank but also for Crumbliss, who had not been back to Bright since her graduation.
“It was incredible. Talking about making me feel nostalgic,” she said. “It really took me back.”
Crumbliss graduated from Bright in 1975, following her brother, Gil Maxwell, in 1971. She went on to GPS, but her family briefly moved away before returning to Chattanooga. She joined the food bank last June and discovered that her elementary school alma mater had established an ongoing partnership with the food bank. “That makes it very special for me,” she said.
Since January, she has seen Bright students and parents volunteer at the food bank, and she greeted Head of School O.J. Morgan and others in February for delivery of a check for $1,263 that Bright raised to purchase milk for East Side Elementary School families. Bright started the partnership with the food bank in fall 2015. The basketball game was new this year, and students brought canned goods only that morning to earn the best seats for the game.
Crumbliss came to the food bank after serving as a senior vice president at FirstBank, and she has been involved at various levels with community service and non-profits for more than 30 years. She is a graduate of Leadership Chattanooga and was named a 2016 Women of Distinction honoree.
She put herself through college, working at the Loft restaurant in North Chattanooga and as a phlebotomist and courier at Erlanger’s Plaza lab. A job as a credit manager eventually led Crumbliss into a banking career, where she has concentrated in the areas of lending and marketing. She had a brief stint in Los Angeles as a voiceover and infomercial actor and one appearance as an extra in “The West Wing.” She went on to have industry agent representation in Atlanta, Nashville and Knoxville, making television commercials and training videos throughout the southeast. “It was something I always wanted to do and needed to get out of my system,” she said.
Throughout her career, Crumbliss has combined her interests in the community with banking to form a network of friends and customers. “Now, the business side of food banking fulfills the banker in me, but the need to give back to my community fulfills my soul. That’s truly what feeds me,” she said. “Both of my parents were very involved in giving back to the community. And from their example, I have always been involved at some level in non-profit work.”
Nearly a year on the job has been a great experience for Crumbliss so far, learning and understanding the scope of the food bank’s impact and working toward better identifying the root causes of hunger. She has met individually with every employee at the food bank and is inspired by the employees’ work ethic each day. Providing food for 25,000 people a week is an enormous task. “I feel like I’m home,” she said. “Everything in my whole life experience has prepared me for this.”
Like many alumni, Crumbliss has very vivid and fond memories of Bright. “I absolutely loved it. I felt nurtured. I stay in touch with some of those friends. I remember the staff, the lunch ladies and crackers with chocolate or vanilla,” she said. She remembered taking naps in the room above what used to be the kindergarten wing and having orange juice and graham crackers. There was the custodian named Lee, who never complained about having to clean up after a sick child. She recalled the library used to be in the cafeteria, closed off with an accordion door, before the library moved to its current location.
Art and shop were special classes. “It was a rite of passage to get to make your pig cutting board and birdhouse,” she said, also recalling a rug made on a loom and clay trivets. One of the first books she remembered reading by herself was Where the Red Fern Grows, and she enjoyed taking turns drawing the day’s weather on the calendar in Miss Adele Baker’s first grade class. Then there’s the dodge ball game she anguishes over not winning. “It was down to me and Rob (Gentry). To this day, I know I should have just caught the ball. He was standing over me and dropped it. I should have caught the ball!” she said.
When she came back to Bright this year, she found another place that felt like home. Even though some of the classrooms have moved to different rooms and there are more square feet in the school now, so much of it was the same for Crumbliss. Her past and present have come together through the food bank partnership. “That was full circle for me,” she said.