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‘Being part of the community’ leads to alumni impact at Blue Ridge Community College

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Blue Ridge Community College, serving Henderson and Transylvania counties, has an annual economic impact of $128.1 million, including $22.1 million in operations spending, $4.5 million in student spending, and $101.6 million in alumni impact.

To better understand the economic impact of alumni, I wanted to understand the role of alumni as force amplifiers, the ripple effects of their presence in the community, and the trickle down or trickle up effects of or on their personal and professional lives.

Meet Dan Poeta.

Poeta owns Horizon Heating and Air Conditioning. He moved to the area in 1997 with an electrical contracting license, and in 2002 he went to work with a local heating and air conditioning company running the electrical department. He asked his employer if he could take the apprenticeship program at Blue Ridge for heating and air. They paid for the course and the books. As he tells me his story, he points out and says, “I was a student in that lab right there.”

Poeta never forgot the investment his employer made in him. He went on to get his state contracting license for heating and air and opened Horizon in 2010.

He also never forgot his experience at Blue Ridge.

One graduate, one business, and the importance of thank you

Horizon employs 55 people — Poeta refers to them as his “co-workers” — including service technicians, installers, and apprentices, as well as those in sales, administration, and executives.

The heating and air conditioning business has 4,500 maintenance agreements in the region, and now resides in a 12,000 square foot building in Hendersonville.

Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Poeta tells me that the first winter the business was open, he decided that for every HVAC system Horizon sold, the company would make a $50 contribution to the Interfaith Assistance Ministry. Customers received a thank you note from the ministry and Poeta. He wanted to thank them “for choosing us,” he says.

Becoming part of the community

In 2013, Poeta was invited to be part of Vision Henderson County. This local leadership program is a partnership between Blue Ridge Community College and the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. Vision “builds community leadership through an in-depth view of the cultural, economic, historic, social, educational, environmental and government assets in Henderson County and connects participants with prominent civic, business and government leaders.”

Poeta says being part of the cohort helped him understand the community.

In 2014, Horizon Heating and Air Conditioning outgrew its first location and expanded operations. To give back, Poeta started giving away $1,000 a month to local nonprofits.

When sharing lessons learned with new business owners, Poeta says, “the biggest thing we have found is being part of the community.” That’s what matters.

A personalized giving strategy emerges

In 2015, as giving back solidified as a priority for Horizon, Poeta met with the team at the Community Foundation of Henderson County to set up a donor-advised fund. In the first year, $12,000 was donated to 15 local organizations.

The community foundation website says, “giving is an expression of who you are and what you care about, and we help you craft a personalized giving strategy.”

Poeta found other local business to give back with him, and by February 2022, the sixth year of charitable contributions, Horizon Heating & Air, Hannah Flanagan’s, Southern Alarm & Security, and Trane partnered to provide $48,000 in grants for 28 nonprofits and charitable programs.

The business owners said they are “proud and excited to support the communities that have so graciously supported our own businesses over the years.”

On the Horizon website, Poeta invites others to become a “donation partner.” Poeta says that the business owners invest in children and families, basic needs and education.

“If you can get those basic needs met,” he believes, “then they will find a way to help the next person.”

Being part of the community

“We have 55 folks,” Poeta says, “who have the same culture, the same mindset, and believe in being part of the community.” The Horizon co-workers serve as scout leaders, coaches, and volunteers.

Poeta served on the Henderson County Planning Board. He is the immediate past president of the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. He is on the executive committee and leads the community outreach committee for the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development. He serves as an adjunct faculty member of Blue Ridge Community College. He and his wife continue to take classes at the college.

But it was while serving on the Board of Directors of the Henderson County Educational Foundation from 2012-16 — he is serving on it again now — that he learned about Leader in Me.

Leader in Me

Currently, 11 schools in the Henderson County Public Schools are Leader in Me schools. The website says, “The Leader in Me is Franklin Covey’s whole school transformation process. It teaches 21st century leadership and life skills to students and creates a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader.”

Poeta, who supports Leader in Me through the work of the foundation, says, “We’re seeing student citizens who are advocating for themselves, who are responsible for themselves, who know how to work together as team, who know how to communicate and collaborate.”

Blakeleigh says the seven habits include being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first, thinking win-win, seeking first to understand, synergize, sharpen the saw, and find your voice. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Blakeleigh Pace is a fifth grader at Edneyville Elementary. She says, “The seven habits are really principles that are great to help us — not even just help us in school but also help us when we become adults. Those principles really help us in life.”

Neuburger meets with students on the first day of school. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Sloan Neuburger, the assistant principal at Edneyville, says, “When you are a kid growing up in poverty, you break the cycle by giving them this skillset.” She tells her students, “You have a tool box that no one else has, and inside your toolbox you have all the ways to solve the problems that are coming your way. Your new tools are productive and proactive. They will help you and your community, and ideally the whole world.”

Neuberger says, “Leader in Me completely changes their future. Instead of not seeing a future, they see all kinds of possibility for the future.”

Principal Deaver shows us the silent fox, a schoolwide cue for students to transition into silence. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

At Fletcher Elementary, home of the Fletcher Foxes and another Leader in Me school, Principal Tammy Deaver says, “Everything we do is trying to build our students as leaders from classroom management to schoolwide rules.” The school is designed, she says, to encourage students intrinsically to do the right thing.

In school, students and educators set “wildly important goals” each month. At home, families also are encouraged to use the language of Leader in Me.

“The kids start out learning the habits,” says Deaver, “we put them in leadership roles, and they start giving back to the community.”

Alums are force multipliers in the community

“He is a force multiplier,” says David Stegall, the chief of staff at Blue Ridge Community College. “It’s not just the one impact. It’s who did those people impact?”

Laura Leatherwood, the president of Blue Ridge, takes it one step further imagining how those impacts ripple over time in five years and then 10 years out.

When Leatherwood thinks about the economic impact of the college, she looks at it from the business side: all of the Horizons out there. “What matters for job growth, what matters to economic development, what matters to our county leaders, what matters to our legislators,” she said.

But she also thinks about it from the human side: all of the Dan Poetas that start out as students, graduate into workforce opportunities, and go on to become community leaders.

“These are individual people, and we have changed the lives of these people forever,” says Leatherwood.

“This is a great community. It feels good to help,” says Poeta.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.