WILKESBORO, N.C. — Deirdra Morrison is like many other college freshmen. Since she started her first year at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee on Aug. 18, she has been decorating her dorm room, participating in athletics, meeting other students at sorority rush activities, and steeling herself for her first college chemistry lab.
But while most college freshmen have one or two parents cheering them on, Morrison has a lot more.
She came to the university from the Rainbow Center, a Wilkesboro-based home for neglected or abandoned children, where she lived for two years off and on until graduating from high school.
“They have been very good to me,” Morrison says of the center’s staff. “It’s kind of like my mom and dad, but a bigger family of moms and dads.”
Morrison, a five-time state champion in track, was the first Rainbow Center resident to be accepted to a four-year university right out of high school, receiving a full track scholarship.
“There are a lot of things to do, and chances to get involved,” she says. “It’s such a big transition from high school.”
And that transition, she says, was eased by the skills she learned at the Rainbow Center.
From the time she and her nine-year-old sister arrived at the center in 2005 after being placed in the custody of the Wilkes County Department of Social Services, Morrison received lessons in discipline and communication.
“It’s a system designed to help you take responsibility for your actions,” she says. “It teaches you that everything you do has a consequence.”
Two of the Rainbow Center staff, CEO Glenda Andrews and Koren Huskins, the public relations coordinator, accompanied Morrison on a shopping trip to Hickory, N.C., to buy a comforter, school supplies and clothes for her first year at college.
Like typical parents, they were also there to wave goodbye as they dropped Morrison off at what would be new home for the next four years.
“Maybe 10 minutes after they left, I called them saying, ‘I miss you guys,'” Morrison says.
The feeling is mutual.
“She’s just such a special young lady,” Huskins says. “I admire so much her dedication and strong will to succeed.”
Morrison is the Rainbow Center’s latest success story in a 20-year history of working with neglected and abused children up to age 21.
In four separate cottages, each supervised by a set of house “parents,” up to 28 children learn how to communicate with others, stay away from drugs and take their education seriously.
“We are showing these children what a typical, normal family environment is like,” says Fred Robinette, vice president of development for the Rainbow Center.
The center was founded in 1987 by Charles Sheppard, who recognized a need for a safe shelter for children in Wilkes County.
This summer, the Rainbow Center celebrated its 20th anniversary with the grand opening of the High Country Academy, which gives children who were suspended from school a chance to keep up with their academics while receiving behavioral counseling.
The center, with a $3.7 million budget, has faced cutbacks in state and federal government funding and has had to look elsewhere for contributions.
Some of the most generous donors have been the Duke Endowment and the Kulynych Family Foundation.
The center provides a variety of services for children, including family reunification counseling, physical and mental health assessments, foster care and special education programs.
“We help them deal with whatever issues are confronting them,” Robinette says.
The Rainbow Center has passed this lesson in service on to Deirdra Morrison, who is studying to become a nurse.
“When I see people in trouble,” she says, “I want to lend a hand.”