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A weekend of connections: Feast of Freedom in Charlotte

Thanksgiving often signifies a time to appreciate the presence of people in one’s life and reflect on the needs others may have. Throughout the year, the Harvest Center of Charlotte operates to create community through service and transform lives through sustainable housing, gainful employment, and faith community connections.

The Harvest Center of Charlotte sponsors an annual Thanksgiving day of service for families who reside in Charlotte’s historic west side community. A new location, over twenty-five organizations, a unique district-charter school collaboration, and countless volunteers marked an unforgettable Harvest Center Annual Thanksgiving event of service — the Feast of Freedom, held on on November 16th and 17th.

On the first day, families from across the west side could arrive at the Harvest Center for health and wellness screenings/consultations and engage in a night of family connections. On the following day, families attended the “Day of Care Through Serving” hosted at Movement School.

Ana Cunningham with her former student, senior JaKayla Robinson, in the clothing tent at Movement School. JaKayla volunteers at the Feast of Freedom with her church each year. Courtesy of Ana Cunningham

Families arrived to partake in a shopping experience with a clothing drive, a shoe tent, a hot Thanksgiving meal, and could also take a frozen turkey home to cook for their families on Thanksgiving day. The care devoted to west side families was not restricted solely to tangible Thanksgiving treats. Ample academic resources from books, choice boards, and time with teachers were offered to the families of Movement School and Ashley Park due to an innovating and groundbreaking collaboration project between the two schools.

Community members shopping in the clothing tent at Movement School. The Harvest Center received countless donations of winter clothes, shoes, hats, and scarves for participants to have a personalized winter shopping experience with their own personal shopper. Courtesy of Ana Cunningham

In 2018, Movement School and Ashley Park began a rare district-charter collaboration project in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district. Each school piloted three family nights with the support of Charlotte-based social-impact implementation firm SchermCo. SchermCo Founder and Principal, Greg Schermbeck, in partnership with the school leaders from Ashley Park and Movement believed there was enormous potential for the two schools to work together. Both schools, less than a mile from each other, were exploring ways to support parent engagement and empowerment. Two key questions emerged from these early conversations:

1. Can a district and charter school work together to increase family engagement and empowerment at each school?

2. Can an increase in family engagement and empowerment be a leading indicator in improving their scholar’s academic, attendance, and behavioral performance?

The initial pilot of family nights and the collected data were so successful that Wells Fargo committed greater financial support for a full year of 20 family nights, with 10 at each school throughout the 2018-2019 school year.

With their financial investment, SchermCo continues to lead the family night program for each school. In total, both schools will have 10 family nights in which scholars and families from each school community engage in a focused topic selected by families and staff, spend time with their scholar’s teacher, and receive focused academic tools to better support their child at home. “We are proud to support this innovative partnership”, says Kristi Thomas, community relations senior consultant at Wells Fargo.

“It is a unique opportunity to share best practices and learn about ‘what works’ from families, school staff and teachers. We are encouraged by the strong participation and look forward to continuing the events through next year,” Thomas said.

Feast of Freedom marked the first collaborative event for both schools in which families could receive academic resources and the services provided by the Harvest Center. Both school leaders were interviewed on stage and shared ample examples of how much the partnership has meant for their school communities.

Movement School principal, Jamie Sumter (left) and Ashley Park Elementary School principal, Meaghan Loftus (right) share a laugh prior to their interview on stage during the Feast of Freedom dinner. Courtesy of Ana Cunningham

One question posed by the event hosts to the audience was, “Does the faith community have a role in preparing our children to be successful in school and as future engaged adults?” All audience members exclaimed with a resounding yes since the faith communities operate in a unique space to offer enrichment activities that can further support scholars on an academic and personal basis. Any instance in which all societal spheres from the education, business, and faith realms connect to support students results in tremendous outcomes for students as they gain skills and social capital to become active contributing adults. A night of connections brought together families, schools, and a community of organizations to serve, care, and engage a beloved and historic community.

Ana Cunningham

In 2012, Ana Cunningham began to teach high school English at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. Since then, her love for her students and the passionate drive to ensure they receive the most enriched and enlivened education has only grown. In six years, students have become her family, inspiration, and her hope that the world can be a better place. Cunningham is a staunch advocate that students must gain the cultural capital necessary to leverage their stories to all realms of society to ensure that decisions that impact them and their families do not happen in isolation.