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The big red barn making homes warmer, drier, and safer in Western NC

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Almost 10 years ago, the Hinton Rural Life Center partnered with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and released a quality of life study for Clay County, Cherokee County, and Towns County (in Georgia). 

The study uncovered many statistics, most of which the people of Clay County could feel but couldn’t point to hard data. A quarter of homeowners were considered cost burdened, and 12% were considered extremely cost burdened. For renters, the statistics were worse — 44% of renters were cost burdened, and 34% were extremely cost burdened.

Extremely cost burdened for this study means paying over 50% of your gross income toward housing. When costs are that high, keeping the lights on and repairing what seems like small items can fall by the wayside.

This study sparked conversation within the community about the social determinants of health, and at the Hinton Rural Life Center, they decided to pivot their outreach to try to impact some of the data themselves.

“It gave validity to what was already a concern,” said Nick Oliver, the organization’s construction ministry coordinator.

“The quality of life study was kind of the catalyst to start us thinking,” said Ricky Hill, manager of building and grounds. “… And then along the way we discovered the social determinants of health. We heard about ACEs, adverse childhood experience, we began seeing things like that as well, as we started with this quality of life study.”

The center began ramping up efforts to make homes warmer, drier, and safer. A decade of wood chuckers and many healthy home repairs later, Oliver and Hill tour us around one of Hinton Rural Life Center’s biggest accomplishment to date — the Educational Tool Barn.

Hinton Rural Life Center’s new educational tool barn. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

‘Walking alongside neighbors’

In 2018, the scene where this educational tool barn stands looked a little different. Groups of volunteers known as the wood chuckers would meet every Wednesday to chop fire wood for those community members in need. This firewood ministry was just one way the Hinton Rural Life Center answered a problem presented in the study.

The wood chuckers found weekly fellowship in the work of chopping timber, and the product was given to those in the community to heat their homes. The center continued to increase its outreach with their Safe and Healthy Home Repair program. Community members fill out a questionnaire to request an assessment where a team from Hinton will look for mold, door seals, safe electrical outlets, and much more.

Oliver said the thing his ministry mostly builds are accessibility ramps, as well as repairing steps and porches. Every repair is dependent on the needs of their community member. A large population in Clay County are aging in place, and Oliver knows “the world is full of steps.”

From the Hinton Rural Life Center Impact Report 2023.

He encourages those he helps to keep moving, and he and his team make that much easier with by landings and railings, fixing broken planks, and more. All of this is easier to do with a state of the art facility, which they have now, sitting beside the wood chuckers yard.

The educational tool barn has a carpentry studio where Oliver and other team members make items for houses, and another room that is like an interactive home repair museum.

Over 600 volunteer groups will be traveling to the Hinton Rural Life Center this summer to take part in mission-driven outreach. The educational tool barn will be ready to host those guests as they help the community.

The Hinton Rural Life Center put out a 2023 Impact Report sharing the ripple effects of their Safe and Healthy Homes program.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.