Ronda Paulson walked into our interview five minutes late, without makeup and carrying a 7-month-old baby. It was obvious that she had been busy, and I felt bad for making her take time out of her packed schedule to say things that she had said many times before. After all, she’s been getting a lot of attention lately. Nevertheless, she called my name from across the Grill, walked my way and sat down right next to me.
Everything about this woman screamed “Southern.” From her a-bit-louder-than-inside voice to the warm greeting, I instantly felt at ease when I introduced myself. She may have recently become famous in the Tri-Cities area, but she has always been well-known around Milligan’s campus. Her love for Jesus could be considered legendary.
Two years ago, I began my college career at Milligan. Soon after I arrived, I was invited to an event where the college coaches shared their testimonies. Paulson, the cheer and dance coach, told her story. I sat there, listening and intrigued. She kept referring to Jesus as “my Jesus,” and I thought, Huh, that’s kind of odd.
Now that I have officially met Paulson and spoke to her one-on-one, I do not think it is nearly as odd. She is so honest about her struggles and not afraid to be blatant. Her faith is very real, and she exudes joy in a way that someone can when they have experienced real love.
Paulson has always had a heart for others. Since she was young, she has wanted to adopt a child. Her husband, Corey Paulson, however, had a different view.
“On Adoption Sundays, I’d be down on my knees in the pew, you know, ugly crying,” Paulson laughed. “My husband would just lean down and say, ‘No, Ronda, not happening.’”
Years later, he would be helping her start a nonprofit organization that would help children in the foster system have a warm, welcoming house to go to before being assigned a foster home. The Paulsons also became foster parents themselves.
According to the Tennessee Commission of Children and Youth, 7,786 children were in the state system; around 4,000 of them were in the foster care system in 2013. It wasn’t until Paulson tricked her husband into attending a Parents As Tender Healers class, a class foster parents must take in order to be certified parents, that he realized that he wanted to really become a foster parent.
“He told me, ‘You and God, you wrecked me,’” Rhonda recalled. “‘Now I know that there are children who need a home, and we have a home. Now I know that there are children who need love and we have love. How can we not do this?’”
During the seventh PATH class, they visited a Department of Child Safety office in Washington County. It was there that Rhonda and Corey Paulson found out that children have to spend the night in that office while the DCS is finding them a foster home. Many times, the children will come in with nothing but trash bags to sleep on, also lacking any hygiene products.
“When I heard about that I just laid my head down and cried,”
Paulson said. For her, it has never been about the DCS not doing its job.
“They have a stack of papers a foot high to sort through and are trying to watch a child. What Isaiah 117 wants to do is to love the children and let the DCS do their job.”
Paulson excitedly explained that the Isaiah 117 House, named after Is. 1:17 and the Paulson’s first foster son, will be a home near the DCS office where volunteers will host children waiting to be placed in a home. This home will have beds for children to stay in, a fully stocked kitchen and bathroom and loving volunteers who will “play with and love on those kids.” It will also have an office for the DCS officer to work in.
The Paulsons officially began the nonprofit in Jan. 2017, to which someone reminded her was “1/17.”
“It was like after three years of God asking me what I was going to do, I finally knew that this was it,” Paulson said.
She asked Milligan’s administration to allow her to only coach–at the time she was also teaching anatomy–though this meant a pay cut. But for Rhonda the sacrifice was entirely worth it to see how successful the Isaiah 117 House is now.
In February 2017, they had set a goal to raise $75,000 to buy a home. On Aug. 1, they had their financial kick off, and by Aug. 31 all $75,000 had been raised. Recently, they closed on a home, though they still need to do repairs on the foundation of the house, which will cost a significant amount of money.
Paulson, an Elizabethton native, and her husband attended Milligan and graduated in 1996 and 1997, respectively. It’s no wonder such a large portion of their support comes from the staff, faculty and students at Milligan. I see the “Love, you’re not alone” shirts that they sell around campus very often.
“It’s crazy being a wife, mother, coach and heading up a nonprofit,”
Paulson said. She claims the only way she could do it is through God giving her the strength and peace to carry on. It was ironic listening to her say that just as her youngest foster-son, Eli, stared up at her and giggled. She said that both Isaiah and Eli, biological brothers, were gifts and that God has encouraged her through them and her biological son, Mac, and daughter, Sophie, every day.
It’s clear that besides being a universally-loved Milligan coach and an equally successful nonprofit business creator, Paulson loves Jesus and her family. And even though she doesn’t have it all together all the time… who does? She is not afraid to show who she really is and who God made her to be. She will be the first to tell you that she is not perfect–but she is humble. She clearly believes that Jesus gave love to all, gave a father to the fatherless and gave hope to the hopeless.