Community of Caring

Hundreds from WCU help transform a closed prison into a shelter and soup kitchen

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

The Saturday in mid-November was so cold that Jade Estes, a Western Carolina University freshman from Salisbury, had to use an old CD to scrape ice off her windshield. Estes then drove with several classmates from WCU’s “Go Green” living-learning community leadership class to the Haywood Pathways Center – a vacant prison being transformed into a shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen. They spent the day mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, moving furniture and scrubbing kitchen appliances to make the center in Waynesville as comfortable as possible for its first guests that night. They also had collected 80 pairs of socks – an item the students determined was important but often not donated to shelters. The students had designed their service activities to fit in with a class assignment that involved a study of poverty in Western North Carolina. Meeting Nick Honerkamp, who is helping lead the Haywood Pathways Center effort, left them wanting to do more.

“He spoke of the organization as not just a place for people to get out of the cold but as a place for these people to get help – to get the push they need to go out and help the community or to find a job or even to simply learn how to care for themselves once more,” said Estes. “They didn’t want Haywood Pathways to become just a building for someone to live in. They wanted to make it a comfortable, safe place for someone to temporarily call home. When he spoke about his hopes for the center, it made you want to work your hardest to make them come true.”

Estes was among hundreds from the WCU community who joined an army of Haywood County volunteers working to open the center, which is a 30-minute drive from campus. The amount of assistance from the WCU community came as a welcome surprise, said Honerkamp, president of the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, a partner in the center’s “Tear Down These Fences” project. One-third of the center’s more than 1,500 volunteers during the three months prior to opening were college-age students and younger, he said.

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From left, Graduate School associate dean Brian Kloeppel, WCU student Hali Yarborough, Waynesville community member Eric Lemerise and WCU student Elsa Stiles help renovate the center.

“We are overwhelmed by the support we have received from the citizens of Haywood County, and we are equally excited by the outpouring of support from WCU faculty and students,” said Honerkamp. “We never anticipated the groundswell of support that has come from Cullowhee.”

Before renovations began, WCU business faculty helped the center coordinators develop marketing aspects to compete in mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate’s national Ultimate Neighborhood Give Back Challenge contest, and the center won the $50,000 grand prize. The honor came with a visit from Ty Pennington, a home-design expert known for his work with “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and other TV shows, to help kick off construction. During Pennington’s visit in September, WCU students collecting donations in buckets raised nearly $3,000 for the project while other WCU volunteers helped with painting and other tasks. So many people from WCU volunteered to help that organizers designated Sept. 26 as “WCU Flip the Prison Day,” and about 100 students continued to return during the next two months to serve. WCU faculty and staff members have been exploring long-term partnerships to support the center, including helping develop social enterprises through which shelter residents can gain job skills while helping generate funding to sustain it.

Lane Perry, director of the WCU Center for Service Learning, said the project has brought many people together and he is moved that the WCU community will continue to have a part. The future collaborative projects have the potential to help sustain the center while also offering innovative and educational hands-on experiences for students, Perry said.

WCU marketing faculty members Julie Johnson-Busbin and James Busbin initially became involved in the project not only because it offered a strong fit with the College of Business’ commitment to working in partnership to serve the community, but also because they were moved by its mission, said Johnson-Busbin. The idea was to take a former minimum-security correctional facility, tear down the fences that separated it from the neighboring community and convert it into a shelter, soup kitchen and halfway house able to serve up to 120 people nightly. The transformation would enable the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, a temporary facility limited to serving nearly two dozen people during the winter months, to relocate to the building and operate year-round. The Open Door, which served 35,695 meals in 2013 in Waynesville, would add a new soup kitchen at the center. In addition, the nonprofit organization Next Step Ministries would provide housing for ex-offenders on the site and partner with the Haywood County sheriff on initiatives to help reduce the recidivism rate. Participants would develop personal growth plans, and center guests would work or volunteer in the community.

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Nick Honerkamp, president of the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, talks with WCU faculty, staff and student volunteers.

“It is a project about a little town with a great big heart and a group of people rallying together to help those in need,” said Johnson-Busbin. “It is about a solution that could change the face of a community. It is about an idea that could be leveraged across the state and across the nation. It is a revolutionary idea – one that is powered not by government funds but by the compassion and energy of the community.”

She and her husband assisted with developing the strategy behind the project’s entry in the Ultimate Neighborhood Give Back Challenge contest. The 320 entrants in the contest were judged by their community impact, the plan to execute the idea and the number of votes received on Facebook during three rounds of voting. Johnson-Busbin and Busbin helped with the social media effort, the strategic positioning of the promotional video and the project proposal. The Haywood Pathways Center project won the online vote in each of the contest’s three rounds, a feat in which the WCU community played an important part, said Johnson-Busbin.

“WCU’s willingness to step in and vote for the project was awesome, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of faculty and students who have volunteered to work on this project,” she said. “Clearly, this is a highly engaged campus and one that is deeply concerned about social issues.”

The project caught the attention of students such as Jaclyn McKinley, a senior from Raleigh, who spent three days in a row at the site and worked with classmates to organize a toiletries drive that yielded about 200 items ranging from soap to conditioner. The drive was in addition to a “Rock Your Socks Off” sock donation campaign that student Eliza Hurst, a freshman from Pompano Beach, Florida, said involved setting up donation boxes and “a few phone calls, a lot of posters and many emails.”

Honerkamp said WCU provided more volunteers for the project than any other single source, and the assistance was vital to allow the opening in November.

“We could not have accomplished this project without the support of the WCU family,” said Honerkamp. “It is so exciting to see the students of WCU providing vision, taking leadership and tackling the problems of our society. If this is any indication of the heart of this next generation, I believe the future is bright.”