On a windy and cool Saturday, the West Marion community took a major step toward “keeping it fresh.”

The West Marion community held a ground-breaking ceremony for a new garden that will provide fresh and nourishing food for folks living in this neighborhood. This new garden, named Keeping it Fresh, will grow beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, okra, cucumbers and flowers. It is located next to Addie’s Chapel United Methodist Church.

“It was an amazing feeling to see my vision come to life,” said Vickey Garrison Stinson, the garden’s manager.

Stinson was joined by community leaders Paula Swepson Avery and Dawna Goode Ledbetter, who together are the chairwomen of the West Marion Community Forum, for Saturday’s event. Other people who were there included Mayor Steve Little, McDowell Chamber of Commerce Director Steve Bush (who was the master of ceremonies), County Commissioner Matthew Crawford, Cooperative Extension Director Molly Sandfoss, Coalition Director Amy Haynes and Emily Roberts, the catalyst for healthy eating and active living for McDowell County.

The Keeping it Fresh garden has been one of the many projects undertaken by the West Marion Community Forum.

On the fourth Thursday of every month, as many as 40 local community members gather at Addie’s Chapel United Methodist Church in West Marion. The name of this group is the West Marion Community Forum and these residents are focused on improving the lives and well-being of their neighbors. They have taken it upon themselves to make their community a better place.

A major goal for this group was accomplished on Saturday with the ground-breaking ceremony for the Keeping it Fresh community garden.

“I would like to thank everyone who came out to support the efforts of ‘Keeping It Fresh’ Community Garden, this is a milestone to say the least,” said Avery. “Also this is another positive result that came from West Marion Community Forum. This has taken a lot of hard work from a committed group of people.”

Avery said she wanted to thank Mary Patterson and Chris Forney for the donation of the land. She also thanked Sandfoss and the N.C. Cooperative Extension, the Master Gardeners and Eileen Droescher for the seeds and the help in planting the vegetables and flowers.

Avery also wanted to thank the city of Marion for the donation of a new kiosk and Boy Scout Troop 818 for building it. The kiosk is a community-bulletin board for West Marion and a place for young and old to sit and rest.

“I'm still so amazed and excited about the great things my community is doing,” said Ledbetter. “I appreciate all of the people who attended and participated in the ceremony.”

She added she wanted to thank Bush, Little, the Master Gardeners and all of the people who made any type of donation. She also thanked City Planner Heather Cotton for her support and Mike Conley with The McDowell News for his stories.

In addition, Councilman Don Ramsey’s group from the First Baptist Church of Marion has built a wooden footbridge to make it easier for people to walk through the neighborhood.

“Thank you Vickey Garrison Stinson and Nana Belinda Swepson for your vision and dedication to this project. If you had anything to do with effort, thank you all,” said Avery.

But the leaders of the West Marion Community Forum have other projects where they will focus their time and energy.

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, who expressed interest in aiding the community’s transportation needs, but did not have the resources available at that time to do so.

McDowell County DSS recently received a $16,170 grant to expand the availability of county-provided transportation to medical appointments, health screenings, the Senior Centers and the Corpening 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, according to an article by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

“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, in the KBR article.

The next meeting of the West Marion Community Forum is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 25 at Addie’s Chapel.

“They are laughing and welcoming, and they are discussing solutions to long-standing issues such as woefully inadequate transportation or a lack of childcare options for second-shift employees,” according to the KBR article. “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 community 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 Healthy Places 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.”

“The most important thing for us was that Healthy Places really listened to the community and cared about what we had to say,” said Avery. “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.

“The community-driven approach to these issues really makes the successes that much sweeter,” said Ledbetter in the KBR article. “We’re really cultivating the spirit of giving back.”

She said 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, according to the KBR article.

To get more youth involved with the West Marion Community Forum, Avery and Ledbetter explained “that the community garden will be integral in engaging young families,” reads the KBR article. “With community forum attendance growing each month, the community hopes to build a community center down the road.”

To see a video of Saturday’s ceremony follow this link:

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