In 2003, Swati Patel and her husband Himanshu Karvir left Chicago for Swati's hometown of Asheville and the family’s hospitality business. They already knew that they wanted to be involved in making their city better for those who live here.
"I was pretty much raised here," Swati says. "We moved here when I was 8. I consider myself an Asheville native at this point." While moving to Asheville was a homecoming for Swati, it was a new city for Himanshu. Born in India, he immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 18. He met Swati when he was a student at Georgia Tech, and she was studying at Emory. “We got married and moved to Chicago and did the corporate thing. Then we had the opportunity to move to Asheville and join the family business, and so we moved back here in 2003. So we’ve been here a long time. We have 2 kids both born here, and they love it here, and we love it here. We love our community.”
"Being in the hospitality industry, getting involved in the community was really important," he says. "I started to listen and talk and really hear from the non-profits. I read the studies, and I was surprised to see how much hidden poverty there is. It’s invisible here."
He recalls the moment he learned that there are over 200 homeless families in the Buncombe County School system. He was shocked. "I didn't think that was possible in the U.S."
The couple has seen tremendous changes in the Asheville area since 2003, and not all of them for the better. When Swati's family moved to the city in 1981, the city was struggling with housing availability and cost-of-living issues, both of which are still ongoing problems today. Another challenge that stood out to them? “There is a k-12 disparity in learning. That’s where we can really have generational change: with kids and education.”
That’s when they decided to bring the national program Horizons to Asheville. "I had stumbled upon Horizons in a magazine article," Swati says. Horizons is a tuition-free, six-week summer academic and enrichment program for children from underserved communities. Over those 6 weeks they provide exciting and engaging academic and extracurricular experiences for students who may otherwise not have those experiences. And unlike many summer enrichment programs, Horizons goes far beyond 6 weeks in the summer by offering a year-round tutoring and mentoring component. Horizons families commit to returning each year from first grade through ninth grade. These children and their Horizons teachers and staff become a kind of extended family year after year, and at events throughout the school year. The Horizons concept seemed like a natural fit for the needs they saw in Asheville underserved communities.
From there, Swati and Himanshu began to work on establishing the partnerships that would be needed to bring the Horizons program to the Asheville area. Horizons programs are hosted on the campuses of independent schools or colleges, and Swati, an alumna of Carolina Day School, approached the school about hosting this program. They were immediately on board. "The idea of having a summer enrichment program on the campus of an independent school, where a lot of space wasn’t being utilized, really resonated with me." Other organizations were soon joining the program, including the YMCA and Buncombe County Schools.
As it turned out, the kids (and their parents) liked the concept too. It turns out that the Horizons program isn't just good for improving academic outcomes. It's also a lot of fun.
"A huge part of the Horizons program is swimming," Swati explains. "It's really important. Yes, it's a safety skill, but it's also more than that. It’s also a confidence builder that translates to the classroom."
Children from underserved communities often don't have access to swimming classes. For many, swimming may even be an entirely unfamiliar activity. They may not know how to swim and may not know anyone who does.
"It's a big commitment for the kids," Swati says. "We tell them if they're going to participate in this program, they're going to learn to swim. It’s at their comfort level, with the instructors starting with dipping their feet in the water. For some of these kids, it's their first time even touching the water. By the end of the summer, if they're able to even get into the water it can feel like such a big win. Swimming becomes a favorite part of the program for many of them."
Now in its fourth year, Horizons at Carolina Day Schools has been a tremendous success. Says Swati, “I see a connection to their teachers year-round. They feel this is someone I can reach out to if I need to. Having teachers who are available to them who they can connect with and depend on and get in touch with throughout the year is really important to them. They are with the same kids year after year, and they create strong friendships.”
COVID created some challenges for the program last year. “Last year we had to do a Zoom version of our program. We were not sure how that would go. Technology is a challenge. Having access to wireless is a challenge,” noted Swati. But this incredible team of volunteers and educators met those challenges head on.
“I’m so proud of our team- Monica (the Executive Director of Horizons at Carolina Day School) the teachers, all the volunteers, because they pulled off a really great program with technical support. The parents knew who to call. We were able to get a grant to provide devices to families that didn’t have them, to provide internet for families that didn’t have it. They worked so hard all summer long. They were delivering meals to families. They did a phenomenal job.”
Despite the hard work and success of the past year, Himanshu notes how excited the Horizons team is to be back in person. “I think everybody is excited to be back in person. The teachers who have been with this program from the start are super excited to connect with the kids again. The families are looking forward to getting back on campus.” And, of course, there’s the swimming! “Getting back into the habit of getting in the water is important.”
They know coming back from this pandemic year will have its own challenges. But seeing these kids succeed makes it worth it. Swati says, “This past year has been incredibly challenging for our families. For me, success looks like really diving in the summer and this year to make sure that we work in every way possible to make sure these kids are set up for success for the long term. We want to support these kids as much as we can working with their schools and their teachers to support them throughout the school year. Whether that's through tutoring or setting up special homework diners throughout the week- whatever we can do we will.”
Swati and Himanshu credit the volunteers and staff with these successes, and also appreciate their Board of Directors. Says Himanshu, “This was just an idea. When we decided to do this, we needed to have a working Board. We really needed people that would help us. When we reached out to our initial Board members, everybody stepped up and everybody’s been really hands on.” Agrees Swati, “We have a really great Board.”
As Horizons at Carolina Day School grows, both Swati and Himanshu want to see that growth handled responsibly. According to Swati, “As the program grows year after year, we add 15 students every year. So as our program grows our needs grow. That’s our focus. We have to make sure the funding is in place. As a donor funded program, we rely on grants and donors and businesses who support the work we do. So that support determines how we can grow and support these kids.”
This summer, Horizons at Carolina Day School will be focusing on helping students recover from lost learning and the trauma caused by COVID-19. Students will be on campus for small group classes with a student: teacher ratio of at least 5:1 in predominantly outdoor classes. Like every summer, students will be engaged in project-based reading, math and science work, as well as swimming and special events.
Horizons is entirely donation funded, and their largest fundraising event happens May 12: Horizons Giving Day. An in-person fundraiser is also planned for September 9 at the Omni Grove Park Inn; both these events are essential for their ability to provide their highly effective program this summer and beyond. To learn more and to get involved as a supporter or volunteer, please go to https://www.horizonsatcarolinaday.org/
At the end of the day, this couple is dedicated to the kids Horizons is serving. Himanshu talked about one of his favorite parts of the Horizons program. “At the end of the 6 weeks, we host a talent show highlighting some of their learning. And family members are there to watch their kids or grandkids. It IS having a real impact. It is about the kids and their growth and their connections. There is real joy on their faces. There is joy for them, for us, and for our teachers who are really amazing.”
To learn more about Horizons at Carolina Day School and to get involved as a supporter or volunteer, please go to https://www.horizonsatcarolinaday.org/