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Merchants pitch in to show town is #Brittenstrong
Feb. 27 last year started out like any other day in Black Mountain’s downtown central business district. Merchants opened their doors and welcomed shoppers as they would on any other Monday. By evening, they and Town Hardware & General Store had closed for the night.
At 6:56 p.m., the evening's peace would be disrupted by an awful tragedy - a terrible wreck in the intersection of Montreat Road and State Street when a car driven by Britten Olinger was struck by a car traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. Olinger suffered severe injuries and is in a wheelchair now.
Last week, on the one-year anniversary of the accident, local businesses banded together to raise money for him. The night he was injured is not one they'll forget.
Peter and Beth Ballhaussen's store - Town Hardware - overlooks the intersection where the car driven by Kyle Carney of Winston-Salem slammed into Olinger’s car.
“It was surreal,” Beth said from inside of her State Street store on the one-year anniversary of the crash.
Carney was initially charged with speeding, reckless driving to endanger and driving left of center. He was later charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a felony. He has been indicted on those charges and his case is still pending in N.C. Superior Court, according to the Buncombe County District Attorney's office.
Peter recalled returning to their historic building about 20 minutes after vacating the exact spot where he later found a portion of Olinger’s car. He had no knowledge of the details of the incident at that time. All he knew was the impact must’ve been severe, as glass from the shattered windows of his hardware store could be found upstairs, in the rear of the store.
“I remember seeing the Virginia license plate, still having no idea what had happened,” Peter recalled. Like the rest of the community, the Ballhaussens were stunned to learned the details of the wreck.
Britten, along with wife Sam and daughter Kolbie (the Olingers welcomed a son, Easton, last fall) had just moved to the area from Virginia months before the tragic wreck. They came to Black Mountain when Britten accepted a position as the head coach of the Montreat College track and field team in July 2016. Britten was driving to Montreat from Black Mountain alone that February evening.
Olinger barely survived the collision. His injuries, which included a severed spine, left him paralyzed from the chest down, with no use of his left arm and limited use of his right.
“I think about (the Olingers) every day,” Beth Ballhaussen said. “They’re always on our minds.”
The Olinger family has been on the minds of a lot of people in Black Mountain over the past year, a year that has been challenging to say the least, the Olingers said in a March 1 interview at their home.
"There are still days where we're kind of just like 'really?'" Britten said. "But it's a process. You kind of accept the injury and that it doesn't just affect me, it affects everyone around me too."
Much of the impact is felt by Sam, who said the winter has been particularly challenging, with Britten requiring hospitalization for pneumonia.
"It was a whole new experience," said Sam, who gave birth to Easton last fall. "Having a newborn and a one-and-a-half-year-old, who was not happy that her father wasn't home and not happy that she had a sibling taking my attention away, was hard. It hasn't been easy, whatsoever."
However, the overwhelming support from the community in the aftermath of the wreck provided a "huge lift" for the family, Britten said.
"When I first kind of came out of a haze (following the wreck), like a month and a half later, I had a sense of panic wondering how I would provide for my family in this state," he said. "Sam started telling me about all of the support back home. The financial support and the community helping with the house in itself was a lot of weight off of my shoulders. It helped me focus on my recovery and rehab."
With Feb. 27 approaching, the Ballhaussens, who have maintained a place to donate to the Olingers at both registers in their store, decided they wanted to raise awareness that the family still needs support. They decided that 25 percent of sales on Feb. 27 would go to the Olingers.
Their hardware cooperative, Do It Best, contributed $250. And other businesses in Black Mountain joined in as well.
Charissa Gulotta is one of the owners of Louise's Kitchen. She heard about the Ballhaussens' plan through social media.
"We thought it was an awesome idea," Gulotta said. "We wouldn't be here without the support of the community, so it's important for us to give back to the community. This seemed like the right thing to do."
Sydney McDougle, who owns Sweet on Cherry Street with her husband, echoed Gulotta's sentiments. She said that immediately after the wreck, she and her husband donated to a GoFundMe campaign that Olinger's sister set up. She wanted to involve her business on the anniversary of something she thinks sticks in the minds of a lot people in the community.
"They are such a beautiful young family," McDougle said of the Olingers. "We wanted to do something to help raise awareness for them today."
Cherry Street Kids had a #Brittenstrong sign on the door explaining that money from sales that day would benefit the Olingers. Owner Angela Wilkos said the wreck was heart-wrenching for everyone in the community. (Want to find out more about Olinger's recovery? Type #Brittenstrong into your search bar.)
"I just wanted to be part of doing something for that family," she said.
Britten still has a long way to go in his recovery, he said. His sister, Nancy Quesenberry, recently organized a YouCaring crowdfunding campaign to help the Olingers purchase a H200 Wireless Hand Rehabilitation System and a MyoCycle Home. The equipment, which is not covered by insurance, will cost $20,000.
The MyoCycle Home will allow Britten to exercise his legs in a simulated pedaling motion using electrical stimulation. The movement will build muscles in his legs and help increase bone density, Sam said.
For the Ballhaussens, who said they will always feel a connection to the Olinger family, it's important for the community to continue to support the family.
"We just wanted to do something to revitalize the fundraising efforts," Peter said. "There was a lot money raised right after it happened. But they still have needs, so we're really hoping to help bring attention to that."