Volunteers provide a helping hand for Swannanoa Valley students in need

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Volunteers from Hand in Hand in the Swannanoa Valley sort through school supplies on Aug. 16, when they met at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Black Mountain before delivering the items to schools in the Owen District.

As children in the Swannanoa Valley settled in for their final weekend before the 2019-20 Buncombe County school year, dedicated volunteers were working in the fellowship hall at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Black Mountain.

Many of the students returning to the six schools in the Owen District will arrive for their first day with brand new school supplies, others will arrive with none. Meeting the basic needs of area children who arrive empty-handed is what brings Hand in Hand of the Swannanoa Valley to this room at the end of every summer.

Lois Nix, who founded the nonprofit in 2006 after volunteering at Black Mountain Primary School and witnessing some of the needs of the students first-hand, is among the dozen-or-so volunteers removing school supplies from brand new backpacks that are stacked around the room the final Friday before the new school year.

"We have to empty them because we have to make sure the right supplies go to the right schools," said Nix, who served as the executive director of the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry for 26 years. "The primary school and high school have different needs so we separate the supplies on six tables, one for each school in the district."

Lois Nix unloads a backpack filled with school supplies on Aug.1 6. The supplies were distributed by Hand in Hand of the Swannanoa Valley, a nonprofit Nix founded in 2006, to help meet the basic needs of area students.

Hand in Hand collects school supplies through the summer and distributes them to Black Mountain's primary and elementary schools, W.D. Williams Elementary in Swannanoa, Owen Middle and High Schools and the Community High School. Volunteers meet at Tabernacle United Methodist to sort notebooks, pens, pencils, crayons, folders, rulers and other items before delivering them to each school. 

The schools store the supplies and give them out to students who need them. 

"Church representatives go to their churches and let them know when it's time to donate school supplies," Nix said. "I just went to Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry and picked up a box of composition books and Help 4 Kids, from Myrtle Beach, S.C., donated a lot of backpacks. Most of the rest of the items are brought in by people in the area who are aware of the work we do and come by to drop stuff off."

Betty Austin is one around 15 members of Hand in Hand who offer their time and energy to the effort. 

"I'm a native of the Swannanoa Valley," said Austin, who has been volunteering with the organization since the beginning. "Lois and I have been friends since high school, and when I learned about what Hand in Hand was doing I wanted to help. It's such a pleasure to see the eyes of these school counselors light up when they receive all of these supplies that will help the students."

Working alongside Austin is Maisy Blue Morowitz, who volunteers for Hand in Hand every summer when she comes from her home in Maryland to visit her grandfather Jack Pipes. 

Maisy Blue Morowitz volunteers with Hand in Hand of the Swannanoa Valley every year when she visits the area from her hometown of Kinsington, Maryland.

"I look forward to it every year," said the 11-year-old Morowitz, who has been showing up every summer since she was 5. "I like helping and at my school we don't have to buy school supplies for ourselves, the school provides them. This is a chance for me to help other kids who need it."

Those needs have continued to grow in the community over the years, according to Nix.

"We meet regularly with the counselors from the schools," she said. "That helps us keep up with the needs facing each school and allows us to work to meet as best we can. We're probably collecting and delivering 60% more school supplies now than when we started."

Since its founding, Hand in Hand has given nearly $250,000 to the schools it serves, including $20,000 in contributions last year. 

Once the supplies are delivered, the rest of the work for the new school year begins. The organization works with area churches and other philanthropic groups in the community to raise money that will support students throughout the school year. 

"We meet with the school counselors in September," Nix said. "They'll each provide us with a written report of how funds were spent last year and we'll disperse funds for this semester. They'll come back to us in February and we'll go through the same process for next semester."

Betty Austin has been volunteering with Hand in Hand of the Swannanoa Valley since the nonprofit began in 2006.

Hand in Hand will hold a lunch fundraiser at Grove Stone Baptist Church from 11:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23 to raise money to support the schools. 

"We will be having a hamburger lunch, which will include sides, drinks and dessert," Nix said. "These lunches are just one of the ways the community can help us with our mission."

Plates are $8 each and orders can be placed by calling (828) 686-5501. 

"All of the money goes to helping these children," Austin said. "We all buy the food out of our own pocket, which helps us raise more for the schools. It's a blessing to be involved in the community in this way."