Mountain needs

By Jennifer Whytock

BOONE, N.C. — When Jenny Miller became its executive director last year, High Country United Way had undershot its annual fundraising goal for several years and dismissed her four predecessors over five years, and lacked the community’s confidence.

United Way this year has again set a $300,000 goal, which Miller expects to exceed by $50,000.

And for five years starting next year, she expects to increase the total raised by $300,000 a year.

Her challenge is to reach part-time residents living in summer and winter resorts in the region who make up over half the population.

“These people come here to get away from everything, but we need to get them to care about their vacation towns like they might care about their permanent hometowns,” she says.

A key strategy will be to encourage part-time and full-time residents to give over $1,000, gifts Miller expects will account for half the total raised.

The drive already has received an anonymous gift of $25,000, the local United Way’s biggest gift ever.

Improving donations from part-time residents is critical, Miller says, because of growing needs among the region’s full-time population.

Working in low-paying or seasonal jobs, she says, many full-time residents of Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties struggle to make ends meet.

“People say the economy is up and unemployment is only 1.6 percent, but that’s misleading,” she says. “People are underemployed or working in seasonal jobs where they will be laid off iat the end of summer or end of winter.”

Over one-third of the full-time local population earn less than $8 an hour, and nearly one of five families with children under age five lives below the poverty level, she says.

“There is a lot of hidden poverty in the mountains because there is a lot of pride, and the poverty is not as visible as in the city,” she says.

While nearly half the local population is paid less than $26,000 a year, she says, the cost of living is the region is 29 percent higher than state average because part-time residents drive up real estate prices.

With the Latino population surging over the last five years, in part because the Tree Growers Association brings in Latino workers for seasonal employment, she says, United Way has added agencies that help address their needs.

The three counties have no industry or corporations and few companies with more than five employees, says Miller, who expects workplace campaigns and corporate gifts to generate only 20 percent of donations.

United Way has hired a second full-time employee to boost its marketing, and ease the staff workload.

To improve its image, United Way in July expanded to two weeks its annual “day of caring,” an effort to put volunteers in the three counties building playgrounds, building fences, cleaning yards and delivering food.

“We wanted to show that we’re not just asking for money, but we’re also out there working with our hands in the community,” says Miller. “The response was great, we got tons of press and people were saying, ‘We had no idea you did that kind of thing.’”

Jennifer Whytock is a Staff Writer for the Philanthropy Journal.

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