Editor’s Note: Ginny Rhodes is an Old Fort resident and planning team member for the Old Fort Community Forum.

It’s been one year since the grassroots organization Old Fort Community Forum (OFCF) began working to provide the greater Old Fort area with a voice about its future.

And, in observance of that one-year anniversary, the forum is planning a celebration with fun and food at Thursday’s monthly meeting at Old Fort’s First Baptist Church.

Starting at 4 p.m., McDowell Access to Care & Health (MATCH) will set up at the church with a community resource fair with free health screenings, the MANNA food truck and free giveaways. Vendors set to participate are YMCA, Legal Aid, Council on Aging, Early Head Start, Community Medicine Old Fort, Talent Force, Manpower, NC Works, McDowell Health Department, United Health Care, RHA, McDowell Family Pharmacy, McDowell Technical Community College, McDowell Department of Social Services and McDowell Transit.

The MANNA Food Bank will distribute hundreds of pounds of produce to anyone who shows up. The only requirement is to list how many people are in your family. No names or personal information is needed. MATCH assists uninsured McDowell County residents between the ages of 18 and 64 access to free primary care for one year, assistance with medical bills, medication assistance, access to low-cost dental care and vision, case management, ACA Health Insurance navigation, transportation services, emergency assistance, behavioral health referrals, preventative care and more. Contact 659-5289 for more information.

At 5:15 p.m., the Old Fort Community Forum will kick off their one-year celebration with free hamburgers and hot dogs provided by Countryside, bouncy houses and games, prizes, a doughnut cake, a remote control car race, photo booth and more.

Special recognitions will be given to select supporters of the forum. The meeting will also present a banner for folks to fill out their hopes, dreams and wishes for Old Fort. The meeting will wrap up around 7:30 p.m.

Since the forum’s inception in June 2018, many strides have been made to bring positive change and leadership to all of those who live in the 28762 area code. Mary Snow, a consultant with Equitable Community Strategies works hand-in-hand with Project Coordinator Ginger Webb to oversee, mediate and develop plans for the forum.

“Over the last year, the forum has helped to build a new sense of pride for the community and brought people together to spearhead real and lasting changes in Old Fort,” said Snow. “Community members are discussing their challenges, generating ideas, and mobilizing their neighbors to work together to advance positive changes. We have created a safe space to discuss and address pressing problems like food insecurity, economic diversification, and substance use disorder. Ultimately, we are working together to co-create and implement strategies that build a more inclusive, healthy, and equitable Old Fort for generations to come. In terms of challenges, we would love to see participation from community members in the town limits of Old Fort. There is always a seat at our table for everyone to get involved and have their voices be heard.”

Old Fort’s first meeting last summer was the largest attended forum meeting thus far in McDowell County, and participants decided on key issues to focus on including leadership, youth engagement, healthy eating and active living, substance use disorder and transportation.

“The biggest accomplishment I have seen is the commitment of residents of the 28762 area working together,” said planning team member Beth Silver. “There are many people living outside the city limits that want to be involved, but feel like because they can't vote in the town elections, their opinions aren't heard.”

In the past year, OFCF has sponsored two street dances, helped establish the tailgate market at the Mountain Gateway Museum, held food and coat drives for Old Fort Elementary, and had a trivia night at Mr. Bob’s Donuts. These outreaches may seem small, but in the grand scheme of change, OFCF continues to move forward.

“There is so much desire to see change happen, but people want to see it happen overnight,” Silver said. “Some of the changes we have seen have been very subtle, and hard to see, so people don't even see it. As a forum, we can't change policy necessarily but we can talk to policy makers and bring our thoughts to the table. Another challenge is that we want to make sure that all of the voices in Old Fort are heard. Keeping traditions that made our community strong in years past while bringing in new ideas is sometimes a balancing act. But one of our biggest strengths is seeing that all of us want to see a better community for our citizens.”

The objectives of the forum are to build trust and relationships with members of the Old Fort community, and develop a vision for a healthy, strong, equitable and powerful Old Fort, discuss opportunities and barriers and identify ways to move ideas into action. The Forum is facilitated by the Community Engagement Project (CEP) which is a partnership with the McDowell County Health Coalition, McDowell Technical Community College and West Marion Community Forum, with generous support from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

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