Hand In Hand serves up helpings of support for Swannanoa Valley students

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Hand In Hand founder Lois Nix and member Jon Hopkins were among dozens of volunteers at the organization's spaghetti lunch at Grove Stone Baptist Church on April 5. The event raised money for schools in the Owen District.

Dozens of people got together at Grove Stone Baptist Church on April 5 for lunch, but the steaming spaghetti wasn't the warmest thing about it—the gesture was. 

Over 200 meals, prepared and donated by the members of Black Mountain nonprofit Hand In Hand, Inc., were served to diners, with 129 ordered in advance for delivery. 

Every cent raised went to the students of the Owen District. 

Hand in Hand was formed in 2006 after Lois Nix started volunteering at Black Mountain Primary, where her granddaughters attended school.

"I went over one day and asked if they needed a volunteer, after I'd retired from the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, said Nix, who was the executive director of the Black Mountain nonprofit organization for 26 years. "They can always use a volunteer."

The pastor of her church (Reverend Richard Ploch), Tabernacle United Methodist, was fulfilling the same duties at Swannanoa United Methodist Church, which had just started its weekly Welcome Table.  

"He said 'we need to get an initiative started here like the Welcome Table in Swannanoa,'" Nix said. "I went up to (former Black Mountain Primary) principal Mr. Green and asked if I could volunteer that day in the special needs classroom."

What she saw sticks with her to this day.

"I saw some children in there, some of them wouldn't have a clean diaper or change of clothes and things like that," she said. "When I went home I called the pastor and said 'I think I found our ministry.'"

The church's outreach committee got together and thought it would be best to appeal to other area churches for support. 

"So here we are," Nix said. 

Today eight churches participate in Hand in Hand. The organization, made up of a team of dedicated volunteers, supports all six schools within the Owen school district. 

"We meet with the counselors at the beginning of each semester," Nix said. "They each give us a written report of how they've spent the money we've given them that last semester. Whatever money we have we divide up according to their balance."

The schools that have used little money from Hand In Hand that semester get less and the schools that have had bigger needs receive more.

Black Mountain deputy fire chief John Wilson picks up a plate of spaghetti at the Hand In Hand fundraiser on April 5.

The organization has given over $230,000 to Black Mountain Primary and Elementery, W.D. Williams, Owen Middle, Owen High and Community High School in its 13-year existence. In 2018, Hand In Hand gave $20,000 to the schools. 

"The teachers can use it to take students on field trips," Nix said. "The eighth grade at Owen Middle always goes to Washington, D.C. for their end of the year trip and some of them don't have the money. So some of it goes to that."

Church groups, individual donors and the Kiwanis Club are among the major supporters of Hand In Hand, according to Nix. 

Community High School in Swannanoa frequently has the most needs, she said. 

"Jon West, who is the social worker at Community High School, usually has the most requests," Nix said. "We love to hear that because we know they're spending it and they're able to help these children."

The school frequently has children who come from unstable situations. 

"They call them couch surfers," Nix said. "They stay different places as long as they can and it just breaks my heart to think some kids are going through that. That school serves the whole county and some of these kids are riding several buses each morning to get there."

A few years ago Hand In Hand started donating money to help the school purchase yearbooks and support its prom. 

"They're working so hard to be there," she said. "They deserve to have the things that other kids have."

A three-member board guides Hand In Hand, but volunteers like Judy Murphy are the heart and soul. She coordinated the spaghetti lunch, which can raise as much as $2,000. It's no easy feat.

"I got here at 8 a.m.," she said in the fellowship hall of the church. "I made a big spaghetti (dish), as my contribution, so I came early to get it done before everybody else started."

Hand In Hand member Jon Hopkins prepares to take a delivery during the organization's spaghetti lunch, supporting Swannanoa Valley schools.

Then Murphy, who has been a member of Hand In Hand for eight years, starts coordinating the 129 deliveries. Many come from nearby Kearfott, several from Owen High School and some from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. 

"We came in yesterday afternoon and labeled all the boxes," she said. "On the salad boxes we put the person's name and the type of dressing they ordered and poured the little cups of dressing to go in them."

Murphy, who attends church at Grove Stone, became involved with Hand In Hand after hearing about it from a friend. They two immediately became members.

Priscilla Hopkins, who got involved in Hand In Hand in 2007, was a career high school teacher, giving her insight into the need for the organization.

"Teachers were always paying out of their own pockets," she said. "They can't meet all the needs. This is something that helps bridge the gap."

Hopkins is the organization's secretary. She collected money for the lunch at the door with treasurer Jennifer Holt. 

"I was looking to donate money to an organization that was doing good work here," she said. "Lois told me about Hand In Hand and I decided it would be better to get involved."

She has served as the treasurer for six years, and her husband Kyle also volunteers. Hopkins' husband Jon delivered several orders.

"I love doing it," he said. "It makes people happy."

He's proud of the work Nix has done with the organization.

"People need a champion," he said. "Lois is our champion."

Nix said she was raised to help others.

"My mother and daddy were very generous, although they had 10 children to rear themselves," she said. "If mother had a pot of beans or a can of cornbread and she knew of someone who needed something, she'd help."

That's why Nix couldn't ignore the need once she realized how great it was.

"I don't want children sitting there and not having things," she said. "It becomes a stigma after a while, and that's one of the reasons we don't want to know who the children are that we help. We just want to help as many as we can."

That attitude has helped attract a lot of members over the years, Nix said. 

"We've really built kind of a family," she said. "It's a great bunch of people."

But average age of Hand In Hand members is climbing. 

"We have at least a dozen members that are over the age of 80," Nix said. "We really try to encourage young folks to get involved, because it's important."

In addition to raising money for a worthy cause, the lunches help spread the word about the organization as well. 

"People really think what we're doing is great once they hear about us," she said. "Once people find out what we're doing they really want to help."