Positive Reinforcements

Positive Reinforcements: You can never foresee how the life you choose—or the one that chooses you—can ultimately impact someone in extraordinary ways. Meet seven inspirational locals whose personal journeys are making a big difference in the lives of others.
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Jennifer Pickering, director of LEAF Community Arts, works to connect teaching artists with students in communities in WNC and around the world. Locally, drummer Imhotep (background) teaches percussion to children from Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center in Asheville.

Connecting Cultures

Jennifer Pickering’s LEAF programs bring the world to WNC—and vice versa

By Melissa Reardon

When 14 students from Bequia traveled to Asheville to perform at LEAF Festival in October, the experience proved eye-opening. For some festivalgoers, it may have been an introduction to steel pan drumming, or the first time hearing of the Caribbean island. For the students, it was the first time they’d experienced cold weather and been exposed to the music and traditions of some 50 cultures all gathered in one place.

Enriching exchanges such as this are exactly what LEAF Community Arts, the festival organizer and benefactor, seeks to create. The nonprofit hosts the festival biannually, connecting people to other cultures and to each other, and operates two youth arts education programs: LEAF Schools & Streets, which reaches children in Western North Carolina; and LEAF International, which teaches kids in communities around the world, including those from Bequia, their own music traditions. Since 1995, the organization has impacted thousands of youth locally and globally, all thanks to the guiding vision of founding director Jennifer Pickering.

The adorably youthful 47-year-old is quick to shift praise to her small staff and legions of supporters, but her passion for building community through the arts is what drives the organization. She stumbled upon her life calling, though, through a “series of unusual coincidences and accidents,” she says.

Pickering grew up on the grounds of Lake Eden in Black Mountain, where her father had been the director at Camp Rockmont until 1980. She ran a summer camp of her own, Camp Hollymont in Asheville, during the 1980s and early ’90s. But it was while studying cultural documentary photography at Brooks Institute of Photography in California that she developed a yen for impactful cultural interactions. “I’d always loved to travel, but photography allowed me to step into churches and homes; it allowed me to see things from the inside,” she says.

The idea of a festival arose when it was proposed that Pickering purchase an event that had been taking place on Lake Eden. She didn’t take on that festival, but the notion planted a seed. “I realized my passion for global cultures could easily translate into the festival world,” she recalls. With help from advisors, and despite admonitions that a multicultural showcase wouldn’t work, Pickering launched the Lake Eden Arts Festival in October 1995, with the goal of bridging understandings through a sampling of local and world music and art. “I had not grown up with the arts,” she says, “so being able to step into a world of creativity was like a holiday every morning.”

By 2003, Pickering had tapped countless talented artists thanks to the festival. With the desire to get them out into the community, LEAF Schools & Streets was born. The program employs local artists—professional musicians, actors, poets, and dancers—to teach youth in schools and community centers throughout the region. It also provides instruments to those talented participants who cannot afford them.

That same year, Pickering laid the groundwork to turn the organization into a nonprofit. “People thought I was absolutely crazy,” she says. “When you make that shift, you separate what’s happening from yourself, and it becomes all about what the mission is. You really open doors to new possibilities.”

Another pivotal step forward came in 2006, during a trip to Bequia. While there, Pickering paid a visit to a local school and requested a meeting with the principal. “I asked how many kids were learning the tradition of steel pan,” she says. To her dismay, there was only one student on the entire island. LEAF International was created out of an effort to set up a steel pan music program at the school.

Today, the LEAF Festival—the organization’s primary fund-raiser—approaches its 19th year in May, and continues to present a smorgasbord of arts and crafts, healing artists, poets, and gads of performers representing about 50 genres of music to a sold-out crowd of 12,000. LEAF Schools & Streets has reached over 38,000 children through more than 325 arts education programs. And LEAF International offers programs in nine countries, impacting the lives of more than 700 youth.

“In all the programs, youth are exposed to so many positive ways to express themselves,” says Pickering. “The experience allows them to relate to, say, Haiti or the Middle East differently. And it builds not only self-esteem, skills, and their cultural competence, but at the same time builds their possibilities.”

The organization constantly looks to expand its own possibilities as well. A new name, LEAF Community Arts, was adopted last year to better reflect the mission, and a visioning meeting at the close of 2013 tasked board members and staff to consider what LEAF should look like at age 25. “We’re always asking the question of what does our community need us to be now, and what do we grow into,” says Pickering.

Indeed, a firm foundation is a good place to be standing when shaping the future. “It’s exciting,” she says. “We’re at a point that feels really healthy. It’s good to look forward and dream when you’re in a healthy place.”

To volunteer time or donate money to the programs of LEAF Community Arts, visit www.theleaf.org.

DeWayne Barton (left) and Dan Leroy launched Green Opportunities in 2008. When the organization’s new eco-friendly headquarters opens this year, it will house job training facilities, including an industrial kitchen, and exhibits of community history.

It’s a GO!

DeWayne Barton and Dan Leroy build community through Green Opportunities

By Rebecca Sulock

Mt. Carmel Baptist Church was running through heating oil at a rapid rate. “It was so bad the pastor thought someone was siphoning oil off the tank because they were going through it so quickly,” says Dan Leroy, a trained ecologist and co-executive director of the Asheville-based community development organization Green Opportunities.

Leroy and artist/community organizer DeWayne Barton started GO! five years ago, when the two found their first project at Mt. Carmel. For their pilot program, the partners recruited students and found professionals to train them, and the West Asheville church allowed the newly trained workers to weatherize the building. “We got underneath the church, and the ducts were rotted and disconnected; the heat was dumping into the crawl space,” Leroy says. “We fixed all that, sealed the ducts, put in insulation, and sealed the windows.”

That all sounds simple enough, and once the job was finished, the church was grateful. But that first project had been a hard sell.

“How do you get youth from a community to do the work in the community and…make it a community-anchored effort that builds and grows?” asks Barton, who inherited his activist bent from his father, a neighborhood leader in Washington, D.C. “It took time, consistency, persistence, and creativity.”

Barton had known that the kids in his West Asheville neighborhood needed good jobs and better options for their future. Leroy had seen that the environmental movement was leaving out a chunk of the population. Their shared plan was to teach young people skills that could earn them jobs in a burgeoning industry, while putting them to work in their own neighborhoods.
In its five years, GO! has grown exponentially, from a $75,000 to a $1.3 million budget, from training nine people its first year to training 165 in 2013.

“We came at this from really different directions and met in the middle,” Leroy says on a recent winter morning, sitting at the GO! office on Livingston Street. Across the way, the W.C. Reid Center, a significant hub of Asheville’s African-American community, is in the middle of renovations that will transform it into a headquarters for GO! and the Southside neighborhood, which worked to save the historic former school from demolition. A $3.9 million Housing and Urban Development grant has spurred on the project.

The Reid Center signifies GO!’s growth and its future in concrete form: When it’s finished later this year, it will house training facilities, including an industrial kitchen, along with exhibits of community history, all within a modern, environmentally friendly building.

The Reid Center also embodies part of the healing that GO! works to facilitate. The black community here and elsewhere struggled after the government put in place such neighborhood-decimating practices as urban renewal, which has divided communities with new roadways and forced some residents into public housing. The center is something of a bridge between worlds—a project supported by both the city and the neighborhood, to the benefit of both.

“We had to take that [mistrust] on, too, which added an extra layer of work,” Barton says. “We try to connect people for the good of everybody.”

Barton and Leroy have worked hard to move GO! forward, from the moment they decided to start the organization in 2008 while driving home from Pittsburgh, where they’d attended the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference. They’d been inspired, and wanted to put in place, locally, the tenets of a national movement embracing social justice, equity, the economy, and the environment.

And the programs in place today prove that GO! has really taken off. From operating a test kitchen to training students for culinary jobs (launched by chef and veteran restaurateur Mark Rosenstein) to acting as a subcontractor for a multimillion-dollar project with the city’s housing authority, Barton and Leroy continue to take on work that matches their mission. They’ve placed 185 people in jobs—and even though many of those are entry-level, the average wage is $10.67 an hour, according to GO!’s latest report. Sixty-four percent of their trainees face significant barriers to employment, from lacking a high-school diploma to having little work experience to being ex-offenders. Thanks to the skills gained through GO!, participants work in sustainable agriculture and landscaping, culinary arts, building performance and weatherization, stormwater management, and green construction. And hundreds more have completed trainings and received technical certifications in those fields.

“He’s passionate and I’m passionate and it doesn’t seem like work,” Barton says. “[I realized] ‘Wow, this is my dream, and I’m going to give it 1,000 percent.’”

Visit www.greenopportunities.org to learn how you can volunteer time or donate money. Business owners can become a GO! Employer by hiring participants as apprentices or employing the Go Labor Crew for jobs in construction, weatherization, solar installation, landscaping, and more.

Susie and Steve van der Vorst run Camp Spring Creek for dyslexic children on an 80-acre campus in Bakersville. Susie is the academic director and Steve supervises the counselors.

The Right to Read

Steve and Susie van der Vorst share a vital skill, one dyslexic child at a time

By Charlotte Sommers

Aclassic love story—two twenty somethings meet as camp counselors, sparks fly, romance ensues. That was the first chapter of a still-unfolding saga for Steve and Susie van der Vorst. Their summer love blossomed into marriage, three children, a business partnership, and a successful camp for dyslexic children, inspired by the one where they first met.

They came from different worlds—Susie from the Virgin Islands, Steve from the Netherlands—and landed, by chance, at Camp Dunnabeck, run by the Kildonan School for dyslexic children in upstate New York, where Susie received her education degree. The couple eventually settled in Asheville, where Susie taught at Carolina Day School’s Key Learning Center and Steve worked as a building contractor.

In 2002, Steve and Susie agreed to tutor at another camp for dyslexic kids, and their interest was rekindled, Steve says. “I said to Susie, ‘This is what we should be doing. Why not build a camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains?’”

The van der Vorsts promptly launched a nonprofit and got seed funding from a private foundation run by Susie’s family, opening Camp Spring Creek in 2003 on an 80-acre campus in Bakersville. Steve supervises the counselors, and Susie serves as the academic director.

The camp’s academic program is robust, with one-on-one tutoring and supervised oral reading, but campers also spend plenty of time swimming, hiking, and creating projects in workshops taught by local Penland artists. “Dyslexics are good with their hands, with balance sports, and as entrepreneurs and artists,” says Susie, citing Richard Branson, Greg Louganis, and Tom Cruise as famous examples. “A major goal of the camp is to bring out the kids’ natural talents.”

In the off-season, Susie trains teachers in Avery, Buncombe, Mitchell, and Yancey counties in the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching language, which is based on scientific evidence about how people learn to read and write.

The brains of dyslexics are wired differently, with the creative right side more active. Though most have average or higher IQs, they often have difficulty with language skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. “Without support, dyslexic kids can feel like failures and grow into frustrated adults stuck in menial jobs,” says Susie, adding that 80 percent of incarcerated people have a language learning disability. Dyslexia runs in families, and though neither Steve nor Susie is dyslexic, her father was, and two of the couple’s three children have been diagnosed with the condition.

To watch Susie put her methodology to work in the classroom is to understand the power of her multisensory approach. Dressed for speed in a fleece vest, khakis and clogs, she plucks flash cards from a plastic toolbox as she zips around a fourth grade classroom at Deyton Elementary School in Spruce Pine, where she is a regular volunteer. She “throws” a word, the students “catch” it in their hands and “chunk” it into syllables, then “tap” out the sounds with their fingers. Scanning the room, Suzie hones in on a scowling girl and makes eye contact. “Look at my lips,” she instructs, repeating the word as the girl taps out the sounds. A correct answer merits a “Ka-ching!” and a high five.

A self-described “bulldozer,” Susie doesn’t so much crush barriers as detour around them by recruiting allies. To underwrite the teacher-training program, she forged partnerships with the Community Foundation of WNC and OpenDoors of Asheville, which also awards camp scholarships to kids living in poverty. In the schools, where new approaches to teaching are never easy to introduce, Susie works closely with Mitchell County-based literacy coach Kristie Autrey, who has been instrumental in paving that road.

Now in its eleventh year, Camp Spring Creek is thriving, with 43 campers from 11 states and six countries enrolled last summer. This winter, Steve is renovating the boys’ cabin, part of his ongoing campus improvements “to give campers the best experience possible,” he says.

For Susie, the future is all about advocacy. “Reading is a civil right,” she declares with missionary zeal. “My goal is to have tutoring in our schools where every child can get one-on-one help with a trained professional.”

To request information on becoming a counselor, visit www.campspringcreek.org/pages/our-camp/employment. To donate to Camp Spring Creek, send a check to Outreach Office, 44 Walnut Ave., Spruce Pine, NC  28777.


Space Saver

Rob Pulleyn creates an artistic hub in an old high school

By Paul Clark

For 50 years, the town of Marshall seemed to be slipping backward. People were moving away. Businesses were closing. Even the funeral home had left.

For many, the town’s sad state of affairs was symbolized by the planned destruction, in 2007, of the old Marshall High School, which was built in 1925. Empty and forlorn on an island in the middle of the French Broad River, the building was mere days from demolition when ceramist Rob Pulleyn entered it for the first time. What he saw wasn’t encouraging: Many of the maple floors had been taken up. The auditorium’s fold-down chairs had been scavenged. Even the urinals were gone.

But Pulleyn, a local resident who had sold his successful Asheville publishing company, Lark Books, saw potential. The classrooms were large, the ceilings were high, and the light coming through the large windows was perfect for artists. He went home, ran some numbers, and made the town an offer. And with that, the structure was saved and Marshall High Studios was born.

Today, the building is more than studio space for 26 painters, potters, weavers, and other occupants; it’s a community center of sorts for Madison County’s artists and supporters, so much so that previous tenants who have moved out regularly come back to visit.

The arts are a big business in a county without a lot of industry, says Laura Boosinger, executive director of the Madison County Arts Council. “Rob helped Marshall become an arts destination by providing this open, airy space for the artists to do their work,” she says. “You’ve got all these crazy things going on in there that are bringing people to Marshall.”

Visitors can see much of what is produced inside Marshall High Studios at Flow, a cooperative gallery across the river on Main Street. Founded by artists who work or have worked in Pulleyn’s building, it is one of the few places in the county that exhibit and sell art. It wouldn’t have happened if Pulleyn hadn’t came along, says Emily Reason, one of Flow’s founding members.

Reason loves the energy she feels when she walks into the old high school en route to her pottery studio. She likes knowing that she can bounce ideas off people down the hall any day, or at the gin and tonic gatherings every Friday. The work others are doing inspires her own art.
“Rob has a knack for bringing together people doing a high caliber of work who connect well,” she says. “When you have creative people working together, magic happens.”

The island is again a hub of activity, largely because of Pulleyn’s efforts. Marshall High Studios helps the arts council stage the Arts on the Island craft fair every September, and hosts the Madison County Farmers Market, which attracts residents from around the county every Sunday, and the annual Marshall Handmade Market, right before Christmas.

At night, the island resounds with the cheers of parents rooting for youth league teams playing on the school’s old baseball diamond. By day, walkers greet each other on the path that meanders around the island, and kids learn how to ride bikes in the parking lot. Local children also attend arts camps hosted by studio artists.

Pulleyn, a noted artist in his own right who sits on the board of Penland School of Crafts, is as much a participant as an administrator. He has a studio at home but prefers working in a spacious classroom on the quiet side of the river. It’s fun to be around creative people, he says as he walks through the building, the old floors popping as he goes. “I believe in community,” he says. “It’s good to be part of one.”

Administrators from towns with vacant schools have visited Pulleyn to learn how he turned a derelict building into an economic engine that supports a community. They ask to see his business plan, to which Pulleyn laughs, “If I had worked out a business plan before I bought this, this place probably wouldn’t exist. I jumped in so fast I didn’t have time to get scared,” he says. “I just had this gut feeling that there was enough here in this building that would make artists and others want to come. I only needed 26 people that shared that idea. And it worked.”

To tour Marshall High Studios, the building is open to the public Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on how to lease studio space in the building, visit www.marshallhighstudios.com/faq.

Through her state licensed animal adoption service, Rusty’s Legacy, Jeri Arledge shelters 40 dogs at a time in a fenced dog lot next to her house. Rusty was Arledge’s therapy dog that the operation is named after.

Ruff Love

Jeri Arledge is a dog’s best friend

By Paul Clark

Two days before Christmas four years ago, Jeri Arledge went to the McDowell County Animal Shelter, heartbroken over the loss of her canine soul mate, Rusty. She was so appalled to learn that the shelter euthanizes nearly all the unwanted animals within a mere 72 hours of their capture—an estimated 3,000 dogs annually—that she came home with 24 puppies. She cared for them in her small Marion house and found homes for each one.

But Arledge couldn’t sleep knowing that other dogs would be put down at the shelter. “It was like God was sitting on my chest,” she recalls. “I thought, someone’s got to do something, and it kept coming back that that person was me.”

Arledge went back to the shelter to save more dogs and soon had so many that they were tearing up her modest ranch house. A volunteer who had worked with animal rescue operations for nearly 20 years, she realized that she needed a better system for getting them into good homes.

She boarded her horses elsewhere and converted the pasture next to her house into a kennel. She bought and solicited tarps, dog bowls, and food. High school volunteers came out to spread tons of donated gravel on the kennel’s lot. The state licensed her operation, and three months after she started the effort, she opened an adoption haven, Rusty’s Legacy, for dogs that people don’t want or can no longer afford.

“I think every life matters,” says Arledge, who finances roughly $30,000 of the kennel’s yearly budget largely through her work as regional director of Junior Achievement; the rest is made up of donations and adoption fees. She finds homes for 1,500 to 2,000 shelter dogs a year. Some are adopted at the kennel, and others find homes through the Humane Alliance in Asheville. The rest are picked up each month by the Michigan Humane Society, which, because of that state’s stricter animal reproductive laws, finds people eager to shelter dogs. Rusty’s Legacy worms, vaccinates, and spays or neuters all animals before posting their adoptability on its Facebook page.

Arledge shelters 40 dogs at a time in the neat, fenced dog lot. Each 10- by 10-foot covered shelter holds two dogs, and every animal has its own doghouse that, in winter, is lined with wheat straw. Arledge gives each of them names if they don’t have one already, and she and her few volunteers go through about 50 pounds of dog food a day. It costs about $100 per dog to get it ready for adoption. For many, life at Rusty’s Legacy is the best they’ve ever had it.

In the middle of the Rusty’s Legacy logo is a drawing of Rusty, the friend and guardian who protected Arledge when her house was burglarized one night. The thought of him still brings tears to her eyes. She trained him to be a therapy dog that worked with Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes. “A lot of times we’d be called when someone was near death,” she says. “Rusty would get up on the bed with them and help them relax enough to let go. When he died, I had to do something with my grief, so I created this.”

“There’s such a need for people like Jeri,” says Tammy Comer, who arrived at the kennel one mid-November day to help her friend Eunice Murray select a tiny dog to adopt. “This could be prevented so easily if people would have their dogs spayed or neutered.”

Arledge showed them two little Chihuahua-Boston terrier mixes. Smiling, Murray held each close to her face before selecting the one she’d started to call Lucy. Arledge helped her fill out the paperwork, collected the adoption fee ($25-$125, depending) and smiled as the women drove away with their new friend.

“I can’t wait to hear how she does,” Arledge says of the small dog. She’d gotten an e-mail the other day from someone who said they were very happy with the puppy they’d adopted. “That’s just about the best thing I could ask for,” she says. “I’m not in this to make myself feel good. But that’s what keeps you going.”

To support Rusty’s Legacy, contact Arledge at (828) 460-3190 or e-mail rustyslegacync@aol.com.