Residents Driving Community Change in West Marion

On the fourth Thursday of every month, you can find up to 40 local community members gathered at Addie’s Chapel in West Marion, a predominantly African-American community nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina. They are laughing and welcoming, and they are discussing solutions to long standing issues such as woefully inadequate transportation or a lack of child care options for second shift employees.

West Marion residents talk about how isolated their community has been from the rest of McDowell County and the opportunities that have come to neighboring towns. Often the last town in McDowell County to receive snow removal services a year ago, they are now the first. Led by community members and supported by Healthy Places NC, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s long-term initiative to improve health in 10 to 12 rural North Carolina Counties, West Marion’s community-driven approach to tackling tough problems facing the town has shown results.

“The work in West Marion exemplifies the way Healthy Places brings new voices to the table,” said Trust Program Officer Jason Baisden. “The Trust is looking at the social determinants of health, speaking with local communities directly, and building their capacity to deepen the work. McDowell County residents are seeing the changes happening in West Marion and want to replicate that community engagement process.”

Critical to the success of Healthy Places NC Is ensuring that all community members—especially those who have not been invited to the conversation in the past—have a voice in how to improve the health and the quality of life of the place they call home.

Paula Avery, coordinator of these efforts and one of the co-chairs of the West Marion Community Forum at Addie’s Chapel, explained that her involvement in the forum began in June when community priorities were still in the process of being decided. “The most important thing for us was that Healthy Places really listened to the community and cared about what we had to say,” she said. “Rather than telling us, ‘This is what you need to do,’ they asked us, ‘What do you need?’” She noted that early successes, such as a back-to-school book bag drive and a large Thanksgiving dinner attended by residents from all over McDowell County encouraged community buy-in, resulting in excited and engaged community members.

“Those two events made us realize people will come together when an effort is made to include all,” said Paula.

As word began to spread and the meetings at Addie’s Chapel expanded from six to 40 plus people, one of the primary problems the community identified was the lack of transportation available to low-income residents. With the assistance of the Healthy Places NC team, contacts were made between community leaders and the McDowell County Department of Social Services (DSS), who expressed interest in aiding the community’s transportation needs, but did not have the resources available at that time to do so.

Responding to the community, the Trust made a $16,170 grant to DSS to expand the availability of county-provided transportation to medical appointments, health screenings, senior centers, and the YMCA for West Marion residents who do not qualify for Medicaid. In addition, Medicaid recipients—who previously could only obtain rides for health care appointments—can also access the new transportation services to visit the YMCA, a farmer’s market or other health improvement destinations.

“West Marion leaders have stepped up to coordinate transportation services in a way that will make a huge difference for an area of our county that has often been overlooked,” said Terry Evans, McDowell County DSS transportation supervisor.

“The community-driven approach to these issues really makes the successes that much sweeter,” said Dawna Ledbetter, co-chair of the West Marion community forums. “We’re really cultivating the spirit of giving back.” She cited the community’s growing confidence since the forums first began, and with it, a greater willingness to open up to city officials and others outside of the community with newfound trust in their ability to listen and help.

These early wins have empowered West Marion residents to address other community issues, like childcare and housing, in multi-layered and creative ways. For example, the forum’s recent work to address the childcare needs of their community has included arranging extended childcare hours at existing childcare centers and local elementary schools.

Their work with the Trust has also facilitated new opportunities, including a recent trip to Asheville in which members of the community forum visited Green Opportunities, a local co-op, to consider new programs that could be adapted to their own community.

Both Avery and Ledbetter spoke extensively about the forum’s newest project: a community garden with ground breaking scheduled for early May. To be more intentional about youth outreach and youth involvement in the forum’s work, they explained that the community garden will be integral in engaging young families. With community forum attendance growing each month, the community hopes to build a community center down the road.

Through Healthy Places NC, the Trust plans to invest $100 million in 10 to 12 rural counties over a 10-year period. To date, the Trust has invited seven counties—McDowell, Beaufort, Burke, Halifax, Rockingham, Edgecombe and Nash Counties—to participate. In each county, Healthy Places NC work and projects are driven by the community’s concerns, in partnership with the Trust toward creating sustainable, long-term change. West Marion residents have created a community engagement process that is working and spreading to other parts of the county as McDowell County residents take charge of the change they want to see to help their community thrive.