Back-to-School event serves over 300 children in Asheville Housing Authority Community.
Asheville Housing Authority hosted the third annual #iStartFresh Back-to-School event at the Arthur Edington Center on Sunday, August 26, 2018. The event was dedicated to the memory and mission of Stephanie Maewether, who founded the “Forever Living Clothes Closet” at the Edington Center three years ago and passed away December 30, 2017 at the young age of 59.
“Stephanie was like a mother to me, that’s why I’m here,” said Frank Meade, an event volunteer. “She started the clothes closet, and we keep it going.”
The event was sponsored by Wynn’s Beauty and Barber, Asheville Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program, and Asheville City Schools. By the end of the day, scores of students returned home with new haircuts and hair styling, carrying backpacks filled with school supplies and clothing, ready to start the school year off fresh.
Gene Bell, Executive Director of the Asheville Housing Authority, explained, “The whole event is designed to address the needs of families, especially the children. We have book bags that are filled with the things they need for school—pencils, crayons, writing pads, etc.—and packages of free undergarments and socks. We’ve also opened the Forever Living Clothes Closets just in case they need other items to be ready to start the school year.”
In the closets were belts, tops, jackets, even costume jewelry for girls for when they need to dress up. “And there are barbers, beauticians, and lots of other volunteers helping out,” Bell stated.
While the event is open to all the public, it’s aimed primarily at residents of public housing communities. Bell noted, “We have a van going back and forth to Deaverview all day, since it’s the community that’s farthest away, and a lot of folks don’t have their own transportation.”
“It Takes a Village”
Kidada Wynn, #iStartFresh Event Director, and her husband Hubert Wynn, owner of Wynn’s Beauty and Barber Shop, envisioned this community-unifying event as a way to support the future leaders of tomorrow—our students. She reached out to community leaders, business owners, volunteers, family, and friends to assist in making the #iStartFresh Back-to-School event possible. Wynn said, “We are coming together for a common purpose, and our theme is ‘It Takes a Village’.”
Barbers and beauticians across Asheville pitched in by offering hair-cutting and hair-styling services to students ranging from Pre-K to High School. There was also a show of service from the students of Blue Ridge Community College’s Cosmetology Program, who offered hair shampooing service at the Asheville High Cosmetology Lab. Participating salons and shops were: Amiliana’s Studio, Blue Ridge Community College, Carmen and Carmen, Nap Masters, and Wynn’s Beauty and Barber Shop.
We asked the stylists from Amiliana’s Studio in Oakley what prompted their involvement in #iStartFresh. All three young women grew up in Asheville, and owner Leondra recalled her own worries as a child, when her mother could not afford to have her hair properly done.
“I didn’t want to go to school. I was too self-conscious,” she said. “I’d stand there and say, ‘I’m not going. I’m not going!’ We need to see our babies grow up and feel good about themselves.”
Her thoughts were echoed by her colleagues. “It’s an opportunity to help other kids,” said LaToya. Her co-worker Gina, recalling her own lack of self-esteem as a young schoolgirl, said, “It’s really important to empower girls going into school to have confidence about themselves.”
Wide range of dedicated volunteers
Shaunda Sandford, who supervises the Family Self-Sufficiency Program of the Asheville Housing Authority and serves as a chair of the Asheville City Board of Education, praises the community spirit and dedication of others, in between hectic moments of running around to make sure everything is in order.
“Some of the volunteers are students from Western Carolina University, helping young girls with fingernail art,” says Sandford.
Eric Robinson, Coordinator of the FSS Program, explained the participation of “Chosen Men,” a self-led group volunteering at the event. “Chosen is a group of just a few guys who started helping out in their own neighborhoods, and they would identify other men they knew who wanted to help the children. There are about twenty of them at this point,” he said.
We asked Asheville native Nikita Lindsay, a 1997 graduate of Asheville High School, her thoughts about #iStartFresh. “It’s an excellent event, to be getting the community out together,” she said. “It lifts young girls and boys up. It gives them self-esteem to look good and feel positive about themselves.”
Her own daughter, Nikiya, spent the past year at the Head Start program at the Lonnie D. Burton Center. “She’s very excited about starting school,” said Nikita.
Gerald Falls, a Maintenance Supervisor at U.S. Cellular Center, who has four children in Vance Elementary School, was working the food tent outside. “I’ve helped here since the first year, and I see how important it is for the children.” His own kids, he explained, are “anxious to go back to school. A lot of children won’t sleep tonight, they’re so excited.”
His oldest is entering fifth grade, which means he’ll graduate from Vance at the end of this year. “He’s so excited that he’s going to graduate, he hasn’t slept all week!”
Family Self-Sufficiency Program
The Family Self-Sufficiency program of the Asheville Housing Authority is dedicated to impactful community involvement, and ends their successful summer event series by supporting the #iStartFresh Back-to-School event. The FSS team is responsible for the annual Community Engagement Social event series, which brings community resources, giveaways, and family-friendly fun to the communities of the Asheville Housing Authority.
The voluntary program is designed to assist families in becoming economically independent. Together the FSS program and the participant identify barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. Through collaboration and the support of local agencies, participants receive the support needed to achieve their short and long-term goals in becoming self-sufficient.
There are many benefits to joining the FSS program, such as having freedom from public assistance, goal-setting, career and job training, education assistance, money-management skills, and referrals to community resources. Another benefit to the program is the escrow account: a savings account which FSS participants can become eligible for when rent increases due to an increase in earned income. Upon successful completion of the FSS program, participants receive a check equal to the amount saved in their account.
“More than two hundred Asheville Housing Authority residents are currently enrolled in the FSS program,” explains Eric Robinson. “Just like the #iStartFresh Back-to-School event helps children with a strong start in school, the FSS program helps adults establish a strong new start in life.”
FSS Supervisor Shaunda Sandford listed the many volunteers and their contributions in success of the #iStartFresh Back-to-School event:
- Boys and Girls Club – Donated 30 backpacks
- Delta Sigma Theta
- David Robinson, Basketball Referee
- DJ Migo
- Evan Comer and Michael Fitzpatrick, Asheville High School Digital Media Team
- Leonard Little – Donated backpacks
- Shuvonda Harper, Director of Arthur Edington Center
- Team Us – Provided food for event participants
- Trina Jackson, Asheville High School Cosmetology Lab
- United Way – Donated 160 backpacks
- Urban Burrito (Chad Bright) – Donated food for the barbers and beauticians
All told, the #iStartFresh back-to-school event supplied more than 300 children—our community’s greatest, most valuable resource—with the tools they need to succeed. It is a program worth repeating, and strengthening, and replicating throughout the region, the state, and the nation.