The Mountaineer

by Vicki Hyatt

May 17, 2023

This year’s afterschool program at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville was kicked up a notch with new partnerships — and new programs.

The 150 middle-school students who flock to the church for a safe, fun place to hang out until their parents get off work had even more ways to grow and engage beyond the much-needed time to unwind and socialize.

“We reformatted the program to broaden the definition of what a safe place is,” said Michael Blackburn, the church’s director of ministries. “It’s based on knowing kids are in need of more. There’s a mental health crisis, and Haywood County is not immune to that. We’ve seen the need for more positive interactions, more places to connect and for kids to feel part of something bigger than themselves.”

Haywood County Recreation and Parks offered outings, sometimes extended, where youth could go fly fishing, hiking, paddling, and biking. Haywood Waterways Association organized volunteer opportunities such as marking storm drains and stream cleanup outings. And the Haywood County Arts Council provided various creative experiences.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization HIGHTS, which offers mental health programs and experiential activities to help youth develop life skills, set up an office at First United Methodist to serve Haywood County.

“We’re following the lead of Waynesville First United Methodist,” said Marcus Metcalf, the director of the seven-county HIGHTS program. “This is an example of what we hope for in a community program — a willingness to step into a really challenging problem. It’s inspiring to be part of this. Very few community partners are as brave or committed as Waynesville First has been. It’s a great example of what community programs can do.”

The successful first year in Waynesville will be a model for HIGHTS to start similar community programs across its service area, he added.

The afterschool program has been in place since 2016. Middle school students ride a bus from nearby Waynesville Middle School or Shining Rock Classical Academy where they remain at the church for a bit of socializing and recreation until their parents arrive by 5 p.m.

By partnering with community organizations, the middle schoolers have a plethora of options and activities to engage in.

Ian Smith, director of the Haywood County Recreation and Parks, said he’s excited about the work that has been done through the partnership.

“We got involved with the after school program last spring and offered six to seven programs, from hiking to fly fishing,” Smith said. “With the new direction here, we’re getting more kids outdoors to see what the county has to offer.”

Interested students need to sign up for outings, or if the staff believes a certain opportunity could spark an interest in a student, they may suggest participating.

“It’s a little like the Haywood County Arts Council that brought artists into the after-school program to connect students with adults in the community to do art together,” said Anna Belle Lamar, the director of youth outreach with First United Methodist Church.

During the Arts for Afterschool program, students work with local artists on a variety of different projects, including painting, sculpting, working with twisted fibers, creating silver hammered rings, and making acorn meal pancakes from locally foraged acorns.

“What I love is these are serious artists — people who are famous and can sell art for a lot of money who are giving their time,” said Lamar.

The arts council provided money to buy supplies, with funding support from the North Carolina Arts Council.

Program core

Matthew Blackburn, the church’s director of youth ministries, said there are a lot of athletes in the afterschool program, so many days students are getting exercise through play outside or in the gym.

There are also places where students can do their homework — and get help — though few take advantage of that opportunity, according to Matthew Blackburn.

Around 60 to 90 students are present on any given day, and most want to spend their time with friends and decompressing after the school day, he said.

“It’s a great social atmosphere,” said Matthew Blackburn. “We want to connect kids socially and offer great learning experiences.”

Another goal is for the staff to connect with each student. There are 16 staffers who work with the program and they vary from adults to college and high school students.

“When they see someone who may have had a tough day, we want staff who will check in with all the kids, so it’s beneficial that we started changing how we’re doing our work,” said Matthew Blackburn. “Our community partners offer other avenues for kids who are struggling because we have something positive to point them to. There’s so much more that we can do now and want to continue this expansion.”

The program is funded by the church and community donations and provided at no cost to families. The community partnerships have augmented what the church is able to provide for the youth.

“We recognized we needed a safe place for middle-schoolers and needed tools to help them build relationships in the community. One group cannot do all those things,” said Michael Blackburn. “What I’ve been so happy with and where we are at our strongest is when we see two to three points that line up.”

Having HIGHTS on board as a mental health component for youth has been key.

“We are in the mental health crisis of our lifetime,” Metcalf said. “Students in Haywood County are seriously struggling with addiction, self harm and most of it is due to social isolation. The work going on at the church is as important to mental health as any other mental health program we are part of. Just having space for kids to interact and be is an important piece to health of our community.”