Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry gives single mothers the gift of hope

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Sue Vandehey stands outside of her apartment in Hope for Tomorrow, a community developed by the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry through donations from the community.

It is impossible to overstate the value of hope. When facing extreme adversity, the ability to envision better times ahead is often necessary for survival.

In 2017, the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry set out to give the gift of hope to single mothers in the Swannanoa Valley. Less than a year after opening its doors, Hope for Tomorrow is doing just that.

Sue Vandehey grew up in Black Mountain.

“My mom was a single mother and she did everything she could do for us, but there were limits to what she could do with four children,” said Vandehey, one of nine mothers to move into the apartment complex on Montreat Road when it opened its doors last August. "She was always working and trying to do the best she could and we were always taking care of ourselves."

After graduation, Vandehey applied to massage school in Virginia Beach but was not accepted into the program. She stayed in her hometown and started attending classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College at the age of 20. 

"I did well my first year of college, but after my first year my mom moved out of N.C.," she said. "It was very difficult for me to finish college because I had to work full-time and pay bills. I didn't have the option of living somewhere for free while going to college."

Struggling to make ends meet, Vandehey completed three years of college. 

"All of my 20s was a struggle, with me going to school and feeling like 'I can't do this, it's too much,' then leaving school and then fixing everything in my life to go back to school," she said. "I was in this cycle and I never finished my degree."

Once Vandehey learned she was pregnant with her daughter, she stopped attending school and began working as much as she could. 

"The relationship I was in ended up falling apart during the pregnancy," she said. "When I got pregnant I had my own place and I had it for three years. But without the father in the picture I couldn't afford my apartment, being on maternity leave and meeting all my other financial obligations by myself."

She moved from place to place, staying with relatives and friends. She continued to work full-time but developed chronic nerve pain in her hips that kept her from driving. 

"I could barely walk," she said choking back tears. "I dealt with a lot at that time. I was at a place where I couldn't work and I had a kid. I couldn't do anything."

At 29, with a 3-year-old daughter and no place to go, she met Sonny Moore, the homeless outreach coordinator for SVCM. 

Nancy Blevens, the resident manager at Hope for Tomorrow, hands a set of keys to Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry homeless outreach coordinator Sonny Moore outside of the community's resource center.

Moore, who runs the Black Mountain-based nonprofit's winter homeless shelter at First Baptist Church, had already learned that stories like Vandehey's were not unique. In fact, he's seen an increase in the number of single mothers coming to the shelter every year for the past four years. 

"I had mothers with children coming into the shelter," he said. "I was able to find housing for one through Homeward Bound, but the rest proved to be really difficult to find placement for."

SVCM formed a committee to search for a site that could possibly house single mothers without stable living situations. A member of that committee, who had spent time volunteering at the shelter, made an incredible offer.

"She said 'I have a piece of property that I've wanted to put something like this on for over 10 years," said SVCM executive director Cheryl Wilson. "That really helped get everything going on this project."

The ministry, a collaborative effort between a team of churches in the area that has provided assistance to area residents and stranded travelers for over four decades, launched a fundraising campaign to support the project at the end of April 2017. 

The initial plan was to raise $750,000 for the first phase of the project, eight one-bedroom units on the north side of what is now Charlotte View Lane. A second phase, containing a single building with a pair of two-bedroom units for larger families, was slated to be added after the first phase was completed.

Overwhelming community support for the project allowed SVCM to accelerate the campaign. 

"By August of 2017 we were already over the $750,000 goal in money raised and pledges," Wilson said. "We had so much momentum that the (SVCM) board decided we should go forward and raise a million-plus.

"The late Jim Burt was our capital campaign chairman," she continued. "He told us he wanted to do one last great thing in his life, and he sure did. We were able to tell him right before he passed away that we reached our goal."

In Hope for Tomorrow, Moore now had a possible placement option for the mothers, like Vandehey, he would meet through the ministry's work. 

"What we're able to offer them is support," he said. "We can give them a safe, stable place to live and teach them some of the skills that are necessary to be successful, while helping them find permanent housing."

A major piece of the support system at Hope for Tomorrow is resident manager Nancy Blevens, who occupies one of the units on the property. 

"With this being our first group of clients we're still learning as we go," she said. "But we're making progress."

Sonny Moore and Nancy Blevens hold an informal meeting at Hope for Tomorrow.

Nine mothers, with a total of 17 children, have been accepted into the year-long program since it began. Two of the mothers left in April after finding housing. 

"We meet with them when they come in and help them set goals," Moore said. "They sit down with a case manager from Black Mountain Counseling Center and the case manager works with them to get them on the right track to reaching those goals."

Through community partnerships, SVCM provides access to valuable resources for the single mothers. Those without high school diplomas participate in G.E.D. classes at the ministry, which has helped several of the residents find work at Givens Highland Farms. 

"This isn't something we could do without support from the community," Moore said. 

Residents receive help managing their finances and Blevens provides support in their daily lives. 

"If they have an appointment and their child needs to be picked up, I do that for them," she said. "I'm really filling a motherly role for a lot of them, so if my phone rings at 11:30 p.m., I have to pick it up because one of these girls may need my help."

Help was exactly what Vandehey needed when she was accepted into Hope for Tomorrow. 

"I was in a very bad living situation for a few months when I first met Sonny," she said. "I started meeting with people here, and I started seeing a therapist. I was able to move in, in August. "

The experience was an emotional one for Vandehey. 

"When you come from a background like mine, where you struggle so much to have your own space or do anything for yourself, it's tough. I mean I couldn't do anything for myself," she continued through tears. "To come here and be given this apartment after not having my own place in three years meant a lot. I sat on the floor that first night and stared at it because I never thought anything like this would be possible for me again."

For the first time in her life, Vandehey said, she had options. She chose to once again pursue massage therapy. 

"I'd been through a lot of trauma in my life that it took me a while to really start working through it," she said. "But once I did I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life."

The ministry helped Vandehey secure a scholarship to pay for the six-month massage therapy program she's currently enrolled in. It's a future she "never thought was possible."

"She's dreaming again," Moore said. 

Blevens agreed. 

"She knows she has choices now," she said. "And that's made a big difference in how she sees the world around her."

Vandehey is committed to completing school and finding a place for her and her daughter. 

"In a lot of ways it's like I'm in a fight for my life," she said. "This is the time for me to make it."

She credits the support she's received from Moore, Blevens and Hope for Tomorrow for empowering her to take control of her life.

"They've all changed in the last six months," Blevens said of the nine women who make up the inaugural group in the community. "I saw a lot of fear in them when they all came here. They were fearful of what was around them, the people around them, everything. Now they all have hope."

That's largely due to the power of hope, Vandehey said. 

"When you become used to the bottom falling out of everything, you don't know how to handle being in a safe situation," she said. "This place has given me the opportunity to stand up, face everything in my life and deal with it."