WCU nursing student Jaclyn McKinley volunteered three days in a row to help transform an old prison in Haywood County into a soup kitchen, homeless shelter and halfway house. McKinley was one of several hundred WCU community members who stepped forward to help launch the new Haywood Pathways Center. Construction and renovation at the site of the closed prison in Hazelwood kicked off Thursday, Sept. 25.
So many students, faculty and staff members from WCU volunteered, in fact, that project organizers designated Friday, Sept. 26, as “WCU Flip the Prison Day.” Students collecting donations in buckets during the official kickoff raised nearly $3,000 for the project while other WCU volunteers helped with painting and other tasks, said Jennifer Cooper, assistant director of the WCU Center for Service Learning.
“I was inspired by our volunteers’ excitement about the project,” said Cooper. “The students took on any task that they were assigned with energy and enthusiasm.”
Others such as WCU marketing faculty members Julie Johnson-Busbin and James Busbin also helped project organizers in recent months with marketing aspects of competing for – and winning – the $50,000 grand prize in Guaranteed Rate’s national Ultimate Neighborhood Give Back Challenge contest. 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.
“We never anticipated the groundswell of support that has come from Cullowhee,” said Nick Honerkamp, president of the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, a partner in the project.
For McKinley, a senior from Raleigh, the project fit in with part of a senior research project several nursing students selected to gain a deeper understanding of community needs. She spent blocks of time Thursday to Saturday, Sept. 25-27, helping with a fundraising meal, collecting donations from Walmart shoppers and painting to support the new Haywood Pathways Center. She said she hopes to return in the coming weekends and is working with fellow nursing students on a food and toiletry drive for the center, which is expected to open by Saturday, Nov. 1.
“Haywood Pathways will be able to instill a sense of pride and hope in the community, and it was truly touching to see the hard work of the entire town come together in support of this,” said McKinley.
Jordan Boecker, a senior from Franklin majoring in nursing, said all the people she met while asking for donations had heard about the project, and Addy George, a senior from Aberdeen majoring in nursing, said she enjoyed seeing how the new paint colors and brighter hues that volunteers were applying transformed the space.
“It made the buildings feel more inviting and welcoming,” said George. “What moved me while volunteering was seeing the passion of the entire community for a couple of days to make something so amazing come together.”
Tristan Reid, a freshman from Lake Norman majoring in marketing, said he took part because he wanted to do some community service and saw some ties to a class assignment. “I was looking for something new, and it was fun and interesting,” said Reid, who helped paint and collect donations. “People were very nice about giving, and I was surprised by how many people gave. It was a good experience, and I’m glad I did it.”
For Johnson-Busbin and Busbin, the opportunity to help with marketing aspects for the project offered a strong fit link to the WCU College of Business’ commitment to working in partnership to serve the community, and they were moved by the mission, said Johnson-Busbin.
The former minimum-security correctional facility in Hazelwood is being converted into a shelter, soup kitchen and halfway house that will be able to serve up to 120 people nightly in addition to offering other services. The Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, a temporary facility that has been limited to serving nearly two dozen people and has been open only during the winter months, will relocate to the building and operate year-round. The Open Door soup kitchen, which served 35,695 meals in 2013 in Waynesville, will add a new soup kitchen at the center. In addition, the nonprofit organization Next Step Ministries will provide housing for ex-offenders on the site and partner with the Haywood County sheriff on initiatives to help reduce the recidivism rate. Participants will develop personal growth plans, and center guests will work or volunteer in the community.
“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.”
The 320 entrants in the Ultimate Neighborhood Giveback Challenge contest were judged by their impact on the community, the plan to execute the idea and the number of votes received on Facebook during three rounds of voting.
Johnson-Busbin and Busbin assisted with developing the strategy behind the project’s social media effort, the positioning of the promotional video and the strategic positioning of the plan proposal. The 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.”
Lane Perry, director of the WCU Center for Service Learning, said a number of the student volunteers asked when they could go back to volunteer.
“We talk a lot about the renovations, re-purposing and flipping of the prison, but I think the flip more symbolically represents the type of work that is going to be done by the Pathways project – the re-engagement, revaluing and reinvestment in people,” said Perry. “That is the longer-term story and is indicative of the potential that exists in a physical space where untapped potential, typically, was imprisoned.”
Plans are underway for more long-term collaborations and partnerships between WCU and the center, he said.
“While the process associated with flipping the prison is an important one, it will be the sustained, intentionally developed and purposive collaborations that follow that will serve as the environment for innovative and educative projects to emerge,” said Perry.
Honerkamp said he and fellow project organizers look forward to working with the WCU community in the future. Initiatives could include partnering with criminal justice and social work students and faculty as well as with those involved with entrepreneurship, as the center wants to explore a social enterprise program that could help provide long-term sustainability, he said.
“It is so exciting to see the students of WCU providing vision, taking leadership and tackling the problems of our society,” said Honerkamp. “If this is any indication of the heart of this next generation, I believe the future is bright.”
For more information, contact the WCU Center for Service Learning at 828-227-7184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.