United Way launches three-year project with Owen schools


The United Way and Owen Middle School held a tailgate party Oct. 4 to launch the start of the United Way’s work at the school.

Kathy Begley, foreground, and Renda Barnes of Greybeard Realty serve hot dogs during the tailgate party at Owen Middle School.

The cookout, held before the Owen Middle School Warcolts game, allowed families and others to navigate elements of the new low ropes course that United Way orchestrated with help of local volunteers from Duke Energy and Greybeard Realty.

Last summer the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County launched a targeted campaign to raise enough money to make a three-year commitment to the Swannanoa Valley. Its goal was to raise $200,000. To date it has raised $240,000.

Kids try out some of the new equipment that the United Way and volunteers installed at Owen Middle School.

Last week the organization answered questions about its campaign in Owen district schools.

Black Mountain News: What work will United Way be doing in the Owen Schools District?

United Way: United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools and more than 40 community organizations are working together in new ways as they tackle complex community issues. Their goal is to support students, families and communities so that every young person has an equal opportunity to reach their fullest potential; graduating from high school ready for college, career and community.

As a result, United Way has hired Amy Vanden Heuvel as the new Owen resource coordinator. She will work at the middle school and organize partnerships that respond to the unique needs of the school and community. Vanden Heuvel will implement a number of projects, including:

  •   Early warning and response system: The first of its kind in North Carolina, this dashboard connects schools, out-of-school providers and volunteers with up-to-date information on student progress on attendance, behavior and core subjects. Using this system, teachers and providers can work together to quickly identify when a student is starting to fall off track, and connect with their family and a professional network of supportive adults.
  •   Homework diners: Once a week, starting in February, families with K-12 students in the Owen school district can come to the middle school to get free homework help and a healthy dinner. Parents, teachers and even students have seen marked improvements in performance and relationships in the three other schools that have already implemented this strategy across Buncombe County.
  •  Hubs of service: United Way will work to coordinate, and in some cases fund, resources that will support the health, education and financial stability of the whole family and neighboring community. In other communities, this has included, among other things, behavioral and mental health care, financial education and adult literacy support.
  •  Volunteer mobilization: United Way’s final role is to assist with recruitment of the numerous volunteers needed to directly support students and the initiatives that already exist at the school or will be developed in the years to come.

BMN: How did you raise $240,000?

UW: Following an April launch event at Pisgah Brewing Co., United Way staff began work to raise the dollars needed to secure three years of expansion funding for the Owen District. To date, they have raised more than $240,000 from 36 donors, including two that provided a dollar-for-dollar matching fund.   

“United Way is making a generational commitment to the families of the Swannanoa Valley and the Owen School District,” said David Bailey, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County’s president. “There is tremendous strength in the people of this valley, and we believe that together we can not only reduce the impacts of multi-generational poverty, we can also build the kind of future we all want for our families and neighbors.”

BMN: Why did United Way select the Owen Schools District for this campaign?

UW: United Way and the partners that make up the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network have already launched within the Enka, Erwin and Asheville school districts. When asked to prioritize sites, Buncombe County Schools quickly identified Owen as a candidate. Need is a critical component, and with more than 60 percent of the student body of Owen Middle School relying on free or reduced lunch support, the challenges that poverty raises for students is significant.

But this effort isn’t just about need. It is also about building on existing strengths and the Swannanoa Valley has that too. “There is a strong proud community here in the Valley,” Vanden Heuvel said, “and being able to build on that love of community and strength of character is going to be a reason we will succeed. I’m so excited to be a part of this story.”