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A ‘supporting cast’ lifts up Graham County

Around 30 years ago, Eric Reece joined his wife, Beverly Reece, on a business trip. She was working with a domestic violence shelter, and there was a conference at William Peace University in Raleigh. While she attended discussions, he went into a breakout session that focused on grant writing.

“They made it so simple,” he reflects. “A lot of it was telling your story, telling your needs … [and] a lot of it was just communicating.”

Reece has been leveraging the knowledge he gained on that trip throughout his life, and it has paid off for the communities he faithfully serves. Reece and his church, Robbinsville United Methodist in Graham County, are like the “little engine that could.” But instead of a blue engine, it is a minister and a small congregation, and what they can do is write grants and support their mountain west community in a lot of big ways.

Robbinsville United Methodist Church in Graham County. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Before moving to the far west

Reece became a United Methodist minister in 1983. He has a degree in history and a knack for research, which is an important piece of grant writing. He and his wife moved to Robbinsville three and a half years ago and previously were at Boger City United Methodist Church in Lincolnton, North Carolina.

There, they participated in Congregations for Children, and Beverly Reece worked with Communities in Schools at Asbury Academy, the alternative school in Lincolnton. They helped with the food pantry inside the school, and at the ARC, a clothing closet turned into an ultimate shopping experience for kids in need in their district.

At ARC, children get to make their own selections from different styles of clothes. Client choice makes the organization special, and Reece believes this dignity is part of the United Methodist way.

After finishing his time in Lincolnton, he and his wife were excited for a change of scenery. The minister at Robbinsville United Methodist Church was retiring, and he made the transition seamlessly.

“Here, they let me go with my strengths,” he says.

Graham County, hunger, and COVID-19

Graham County sits at the Tennessee border with a population of around 8,500. It has the third smallest population of any county in the state, and Reece worries the number of residents are declining. The county’s isolation creates a tight-knit community, but as with many far western regions, it also produces challenges.

In a region with a history of self-sufficiency, there has been an unfortunate increase in food insecurity. Through the decades, generational knowledge of growing food for familial use has become more scarce, and it baffles Reece. That is why, during his first year in Robbinsville, he wrote to Resourceful Communities for a grant to help start a community garden next to the church.

God’s Garden, as they call it, is used predominately as a teaching tool for the youth group. The produce harvested goes into the church’s kitchen where the young members learn to cook. The ingredients grown make it into meals that serve the community, sometimes heading down the hill from Robbinsville UMC to Grace Place Community Table.

Two years before Reece arrived, the Robbinsville UMC minister at the time requested more food assistance from MANNA Foodbank. A partnership strengthened between MANNA, Grace Baptist Fellowship Church, Stecoah Baptist Church, and Robbinsville UMC, and the Graham Fellowship Food Distribution was created. Reece is now president, and prior to COVID-19, they utilized the client choice model as seen at the ARC.

The Graham Fellowship Food Distribution is a monthly event where, prior to COVID-19, clients came in, and a volunteer manned their grocery cart as they shopped (carts were purchased through a small grant Reece received from Catholic Charities). They had a frozen food aisle set up, fresh produce, canned goods, and bakery items. The local Ingles grocery store partners with the distribution in times of need, and Reece has also received grants from Food Lion and Amazon to help. Since the pandemic began, the demand has increased and the process has changed.

The Graham Fellowship Food Distribution in the time of COVID-19. Courtesy of Eric Reece

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded regional hunger. MANNA Foodbank projects the food insecurity rate due to COVID-19 in Graham County to be 22.1%, with a projected childhood food insecurity rate due to COVID-19 of 35.8% — or one in every three children.

In addition to these numbers, the Graham County Emergency Food Pantry is closing its doors. In MANNA Foodbank’s fiscal year impact report from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, the closing food bank was responsible for 62.67% of the total pounds of goods distributed to those in need.

Screenshot from MANNA Foodbank’s Graham County Fiscal Year County Impact Report.

These are the food issues Graham County faces, and who in the region is working to fix them? A “supporting cast” of characters, says Reece.

“The people here are caring, loving, and they come together, and they work together and they try to help each other out.”

Eric Reece, minister at Robbinsville United Methodist Church

Graham County’s “supporting cast”

The day we arrived at Robbinsville United Methodist Church, Reece learned about a family of eight in quarantine. The health department has his personal cell number and knows to reach out in these times. He went into the church’s own emergency food pantry and then headed down to Grace Place Community Table, referred to as just Grace Place, grabbing the remainder of what was needed before delivering the box.

Grace Place is run by Michelle Shiplet and works to provide fresh and healthy meals to those in need. Reece and his church usually help with Grace Place’s weekly hot meal — church members volunteer, and Reece delivers plates to the senior center.

Robbinsville UMC and Grace Table partner a lot, so when Reece became aware that Grace Table needed a new cooler, he wrote a grant to Resourceful Communities and received $5,900. He then was able write a check for that amount to Grace Place. 

Shiplet, like Reece, has many community jobs. She is the pastor of Liberty Missionary Church and in 2019 was named the executive director of a leadership team in Robbinsville, the Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team, or GREAT. GREAT’s vision it to help local people and businesses thrive while continuing to honor the region’s traditional Appalachian culture.

Robbinsville UMC is supporting one of GREAT’s newest projects, to develop a coffee shop in downtown that will provide job training for students. After participating in the NC Rural Center’s CONNECT program, which provides coaching focused on asset-based community development, the church wanted to get involved and has submitted a grant to help.

Around the corner from Robbinsville UMC and Grace Place sits the Old Mother Church, a small building of worship that was constructed in the 1800s. Reece is writing a grant to the Partners for Sacred Places for funds to improve and maintain the building’s structure. It is important to the area’s roots, so Reece is trying to preserve it.

Old Mother Church in Graham County. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

For this small population, the school district and its facilities are the hub of the community. Reece started building a relationship with the school district and its leaders as soon as he arrived, like Superintendent Angela Knight. He worked with a school guidance counselor to identify 10 families in need, and the church provides a box of fresh produce and local products during summer breaks. This sparked a relationship with local farmers that has continued through COVID-19.

Working with the school and funded by Resourceful Communities, the church bought a cow. Over spring break, 50 families received 6 pounds of grass-fed ground beef, and a third of a pound of Yellow Branch Cheese. Purchasing from local purveyors, Robbinsville UMC is supporting more than those families in need. The plan is to do something similar for the upcoming holiday break.

In addition to the church’s food work, Robbinsville UMC temporarily opened up a day care for essential workers this year. The school put a hot spot in the sanctuary and the church set up computers for students to use. They are involved with ImagineHub, a program from Boundless Impact that encourages “innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurship,” and will use the church facility to house these conversations.

The work will continue in Graham County for Robbinsville UMC, local churches, and other organizations as 2020 comes to a close. COVID-19 may have created more obstacles, but there is a team of people trying to overcome them. Reece loves the area and its people, and credits the community for all the good happening.

“It’s never one person,” he says. “It’s always a ‘we.'”

Editor’s note: The Duke Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

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.